Memphian among three finalists to become Tennessee’s first-ever school turnaround chief

(Left) A woman with curly smiles during a portrait, wearing a black jacket with a set of pearl earrings and necklace. (Center) A man poses for a portrait outdoors, wearing a blue suit with a bow-tie and yellow pocket square. (Right) A woman with short, wavy hair smiles for a portrait, wearing a blue jacket, black blouse and a silver heart pendant.

Tennessee has chosen three finalists, including one longtime Memphis educator, in a national search for the state’s first-ever school turnaround superintendent.

Cedrick Gray, a former school principal and current education adviser to Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris, made the short list out of 54 applications submitted to the Tennessee Department of Education.

The other finalists are Tamekia Brown, who most recently was chief academics officer for public schools in El Paso, Texas, and Lateshia Woodley, assistant superintendent for Kansas City Public Schools. 

Tennessee’s hire is considered key to jump-starting school improvement work in a state that has pioneered multiple turnaround models with limited success.

Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn rebooted the search this summer after two delays — once in 2020 when the pandemic began and again in January due partly to budget uncertainties.

Tennessee aims to select its top candidate by the end of the year to start the job by February 1, 2022, said Brian Blackley, a spokesman for the department.

The superintendent will supervise state interventions in schools in the bottom 5% across Tennessee, including the state-run Achievement School District, known as the ASD. The charter-based model is at a crossroads after yielding sluggish and uneven results for almost a decade in schools in Memphis and Nashville.

The turnaround chief also will work with non-ASD schools that have large achievement gaps among groups of historically underserved students such as English language learners, students with disabilities, or those from racial and ethnic groups or economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

All three finalists have overseen school turnaround initiatives in multiple states.

A native Memphian, Gray is a former principal of several Memphis schools including Craigmont Middle. He had short stints as a school superintendent in Fayette County, Tennessee, and Jackson, Mississippi, and joined the Harris administration in 2019.

Brown has been a school administrator in Arkansas and Texas, while Woodley has been a school turnaround leader in Georgia and Missouri.

The finalists were interviewed in person in early November by staff at the education department, plus separate virtual interviews with up to 14 invited education advocacy and community groups that provided feedback to the department.

Participants in the virtual interviews — which were led by the Iowa-based search firm of Ray and Associates Inc. — included representatives of Shelby County Schools, Achievement School District, Memphis Lift parents group, State Collaborative on Reforming Education, Tennessee Public Charter School Commission, TennesseeCAN, Hamilton County’s Partnership Network Advisory Board, Hyde Family Foundation, and Capstone Education Group.

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