Shelby County Schools’ interim superintendent Joris Ray was only three years out of college when his principal pulled him out of the classroom to help establish a more welcoming and stable culture in the school building.
It was 1999, the year Kirby Middle School was annexed from a suburban district into Memphis City Schools, and many parents perceived that officials in the urban district “didn’t know what they were doing,” the school was “unsafe,” and “basically it would be a zoo,” said Greg McCullough, the school’s principal at the time.
“We were 10 steps behind when we started just because of the perception,” said McCullough of his first year as principal.
Ray, then a 24-year-old social studies teacher, had already built strong relationships with parents and students. So, McCullough tapped Ray to be an administrative assistant, and then an assistant principal the following year, charging him with winning over parents. Ray helped successfully “solidify that sense of relief that everything is going to be OK,” McCullough said.
That knack for building relationships and being responsive to concerns carried Ray through most of his career, those who have worked with him say. And in a district where teachers, parents, and students are all clamoring for more say in how Shelby County Schools leaders make decisions, that can go a long way.
But parts of his employment history are missing or sparse — giving the public few details on his overall performance during his 22-year career as the school board mulls hiring him outright on Tuesday.
Ray has publicly said he was a principal, even though after Kirby Middle, he applied for but did not get a principal position. Instead, he went straight from being an assistant principal at Kirby Middle to overseeing the district’s alternative schools for expelled students in 2006. (Ray did not respond to a request for an interview or explain the discrepancy.)
Eight years later, he was promoted to oversee academic operations for the entire district including school registration and student recruitment. In that role, Ray spearheaded an initiative to increase enrollment by meeting parents outside of school grounds to register their children. In addition, he and the district’s communications team trained principals to better market their schools to parents. Ultimately, the district attributed those efforts to the system’s first uptick in enrollment in years.
Last fall, Ray became chief of academic operations and school support, a cabinet-level position under former superintendent Dorsey Hopson.
“I’ve dealt with him while he’s been here for the last seven years and, along with our new chief of staff, he’s one of the most responsive people I’ve ever seen,” said board member Billy Orgel.
Ray has been seen by the board as a go-to for solving problems, evidenced by the fact that they gave him the power in his contract to make changes in the district as he saw fit. Ray is using that power to display what he can get done by hiring and firing high-level administrators, and pushing through initiatives since becoming the interim leader of Tennessee’s largest school system in January.
But not all board members think he should get the job without considering other candidates.
The board was close to hiring a national superintendent search firm that would help write the job description until one member abruptly said earlier this month that she wanted to cancel the search and hire Ray. At least two others agreed with her. He would need six votes to win the appointment.
Ray spent all his schooling in Memphis. He is a 1992 graduate of Whitehaven High School and got his bachelor’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Memphis. He got his master’s in education from Freed-Hardeman University, a private Christian school in Henderson that has a Memphis campus.
Not all of this employment history is publicly available: The district says Ray does not have a labor file where complaints are usually stored. Not included was a 2007 investigation into allegations that Ray mismanaged school funds. In addition, a 2018 probe into an anonymous sexual harassment claim mentioned the 2007 case. Both investigations cleared Ray of wrongdoing. The district’s general counsel has not responded to Chalkbeat’s questions about why the investigations were missing.
But Ray’s history as a teacher — even if for a short time — is what shines through for his supporters. His predecessor was a lawyer and had a lot to learn about improving schools. His supporters prefer an insider who understands the history and crippling poverty in the mid-South city after years of controversial initiatives from outsiders. Memphis teachers are still required to follow many of the practices put in place by a $90 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (a Chalkbeat funder) in 2009. It fell short of its lofty goals to improve academics by overhauling how teachers are coached and evaluated. The district also lost students to the Achievement School District, a state takeover system that has seen little success since 2012.
“I think the school system doesn’t have the luxury of waiting for someone to learn this district. Things are happening too rapidly,” said Sara Lewis, a former school board member and longtime educator who started teaching in the 1970s. Lewis said she is one of Ray’s mentors. He “has the temperament” to be superintendent and has a pattern of leading by doing the work alongside his followers.
“He has a cool head… He listens. He tries to involve people,” she said. “He’s not an ivory tower. He’s quiet, he’s effective, but he’s firm. And he’s fair.”
But Ray’s former supervisors left only a handful of performance evaluations with minimal reflection as he ascended the ranks within the district.
For example, when Ray oversaw the massive redesign of how alternative schools worked in 2014, each section of his evaluation was one sentence, including, “Good job with the redesign,” written by Rod Richmond, then the chief academic officer and Ray’s boss.
Hopson did not evaluate Ray in the four months they worked together. This was Hopson’s practice for all the employees who reported directly to him. Hopson said recently that he did not include written negative feedback in personnel files to avoid media coverage.
Throughout Ray’s 22-year career, he has earned several awards, according to his personnel file, including Outstanding Young Educator Award in 2006 from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. A year later, he served on Gov. Phil Bredesen’s advisory council for alternative education.
But his awards don’t change the fact that most students in the district do not read on grade level and most leave high school unprepared for the rigor of college classes. Some argue it’s important to at least consider potential leaders who haven’t been ingrained in the system that they say needs shaking up.
“A search should be done. It’s due process — that’s what we want,” said Sarah Carpenter, the executive director of Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy organization. As a longtime education advocate, she has participated in several community sessions when previous school boards were choosing a superintendent. If the board votes Tuesday to hire Ray, that would strip parents of the opportunity to say what kind of leader they want, she said.
“And if Dr. Ray ended up in that search and gets that job, I’m all for it. It’s nothing personal against Dr. Ray,” she said. “Just don’t tell the people who send their babies to you every day that we’re not going to do a search. These are our babies that go to your schools and it’s not fair.”
The board is scheduled to vote on whether to hire Ray at its 5:30 p.m. meeting Tuesday at the district’s central office auditorium, 160 S. Hollywood St.