It’s been 18 months since Shelby County Schools had a chief academic officer and leaders say the search is still ongoing.

The chief academic officer is responsible for creating benchmark goals for schools, training and recruiting teachers and principals, and overseeing academic strategy. Now, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the district has interviewed about 12 people for the top academics job and is still searching.

When Heidi Ramirez announced her resignation in February 2017, Sharon Griffin took some — but not all — responsibilities of setting the academic agenda for Tennessee’s largest district. The search continued even as Griffin helped teachers transition to two curriculums meant to be more aligned to Tennessee’s new requirements for student learning. When Griffin left to lead the Achievement School District in May, another void in leadership formed.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson speaks to reporters on the first day of school Monday at American Way Middle School.
PHOTO CREDIT: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

“It’s got to be somebody obviously who knows and understands teaching and learning very deeply, understands the impact of these academic standards, but is also going to be able to inspire and motivate principals and people at the district,” Hopson, an attorney, said Monday.

In the meantime, Angela Whitelaw, interim chief of schools, Joris Ray, assistant superintendent for academic operations, and Antonio Burt, assistant superintendent for the district’s lowest performing schools, have been filling in the gaps, Hopson said.

They have their work cut out for them. The district made significant gains in early literacy this year, but is still far from its goal for 2025 to have 90 percent of third-graders reading on grade level. The team is also working to revise and refine the academic plan to help Shelby County Schools reach those goals.

The Memphis district has been the epicenter of Tennessee’s school improvement efforts since 2012, when 69 of the 83 worst-performing schools in the state were located in the city. Since then, the Innovation Zone, a local initiative to improve schools with state funding, continues to outpace the state-run district, which has relied on privately managed charter organizations to turn around schools.

Getting the right person to carry on that work will be vital to the district’s future.

“The search is ongoing. I hope to have some announcements soon but we’re not going to rush it,” Hopson said.