Crosstown High School loses principal after student walkout – its second principal to go in two years

Crosstown High School is looking for a new principal for the second time since it opened last year. On Wednesday, parents and students were told during an evening meeting that principal Alexis Gwin-Miller was no longer employed at the school.

It’s not clear if Gwin-Miller resigned or was fired. Neither Gwin-Miller nor Crosstown’s Executive Director Chris Terrill returned requests for comment from Chalkbeat on Monday or Tuesday.

Before a packed gym of parents, students, and teachers, Terrill spent the first 20 minutes of the meeting discussing the aftermath of a student-led protest and meeting with administration and teachers, and changes the charter high school is making.

Terrill didn’t mention Gwin-Miller until a parent asked, “Who is the principal of this school if it’s not her? We’ve learned through rumors.”

“I am currently serving as the operational director of the school,” said Terrill, citing personnel matters for why he could not comment further.

Gwin-Miller’s departure comes 10 days after the protest. Dozens of students asked questions about changes to the school’s structure and curriculum, why some teachers were switched to new classrooms, and whether or not the leaders would address their request to have students represented in decision-making.

Crosstown 10th-grader Courtny Love said there were “mixed emotions” in the school over Gwin-Miller’s departure, but that students were feeling more hopeful after the meeting.

“I feel like we’re being listened to more now,” Courtny said. “Before the walkout, I feel like admin were taking what we were saying as just complaining.”

Last year, the school’s founding principal resigned during the first semester. Gwin-Miller took the helm on July 1. The departure of the school’s second leader in its two-year history came as a surprise to some parents on Monday. It also hints at deeper issues as Crosstown struggles to appease viewpoints from students, parents, and staff on what the school should be and whether or not the school is providing an equitable education for all its students.

“She was an advocate for all students, she was there for my children,” Crosstown High parent Jennifer Ellis said of Gwin-Miller. “That was the position of the principal last year, who was also a black woman, and who we also lost in the middle of the year. This is two years in a row and around the same time. Isn’t that crazy?”

Chandra Sledge-Mathias, the school’s founding principal, submitted her resignation last year and cited a change in her family situation as the reason for the departure.

Crosstown was part of a wave of schools seeking to “reimagine high school” thanks to funding from XQ, the nonprofit backed by Laurene Powell Jobs. XQ is one of the most ambitious and best-funded school reform initiatives. Crosstown High has received $2.5 million of XQ funding. It was meant to look vastly different from a traditional high school. No classrooms arranged with rows of desks. No high-stakes tests. No failing grades. It joined a growing group of other U.S. schools grounded in mastery-based learning, which emphasizes student-led projects over teacher lectures.

The biggest issue protesting students had was with a cohort model – which was in place before Gwin-Miller was hired – where students in the same grade are divided into separate groups that take classes together, which they say has segregated students.

Chris Terrill (Mark Weber/The Commercial Appeal)

During the Wednesday meeting, Terrill said he wasn’t going to “provide excuses but explanations” for the cohort model and said it was a work in progress. He said the goal was to have two groups of students that were evenly divided by sex and race, but when students picked their electives, school officials had to change up the groups.

“In our least diverse cohort, we are still more diverse than any other classroom in Shelby County,” Terril said. “What I am apologizing for is the execution of the cohort model…students who were used to seeing each other daily were no longer doing that.”

Achieving racial and economic diversity has been a significant goal for the new high school since leaders first began discussing what Crosstown should look like in a city with a long history of racial strife and poverty. Some education advocates worried privately that the school could end up serving wealthier white families at the expense of 65 percent of students in Shelby County School who are from families with low incomes.

Ellis said letting go another principal of color further hurts that goal.

“I’m advocating for all students and that’s what I was expecting from Crosstown,” Ellis said. “Since my children have gotten there, they have talked about obvious inequities within the building. Wasn’t this what Crosstown was trying to eradicate?”

Currently, 279 students are enrolled in the school that is housed in Crosstown Concourse, a huge redeveloped high-rise building that once was a Sears warehouse. Last year, 65% of students identified as students of color while 35% identified as white.

Terrill did not specify if the school would be searching for a new principal. He did tell parents on Wednesday about some of his changes this week, including restarting the student government program, one of the requests of the students who organized the walkout. He also added that they are working on adding two non-voting students to the charter school’s board of directions.