We asked and you answered: Here’s what Memphians want in their next school leader

Memphians say they want the next superintendent of Tennessee’s largest school district to have ample classroom experience and a track record of raising student achievement.

Shelby County Schools board members are meeting Wednesday to discuss choosing a national search firm and updating the timeline to hire a new leader. Board members originally said they wanted to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson, who resigned in November, by this winter. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Board members have said they want community input in the process, though they haven’t specified what that will look like.

Chalkbeat asked its readers to weigh in with a survey on the issues most important to them in the next superintendent. About 50 people responded – a little more than half identified as Memphis educators.

Here are three themes taken from the survey. (And if you want to weigh in, we’re listening at tn.tips@chalkbeat.org).

It’s very important that the next leader has experience in the classroom.

Hopson was named the first leader of Shelby County Schools in 2013 after the historic merger of city and county schools. A former attorney for Memphis City Schools, Hopson was the first district superintendent who had not been an educator.

About 70 percent of respondents to Chalkbeat’s survey said it was very important to them that the next leader has a background in the classroom.

“Simply put, a leader can only empathize with what they can understand,” said A. Thomas, a Memphis parent. “If they have not experienced issues in a classroom or school setting, witnessed our children’s battles firsthand, or proved to be successful in an academic role, we cannot expect them to successfully steer our district.”

Justin Brooks of Communities in Schools, a Memphis nonprofit focused on wraparound services, said: “I would prefer a former educator to lead the largest education sector in Tennessee. It’s similar to me wanting a doctor who went to school to be a doctor.”

Teachers emphasized the trust earned when a district leader has walked in their shoes.

“A superintendent who has climbed through the ranks better understands and identifies with the teachers,” said Connie Ramage Mungle, a retired 32-year veteran of Memphis schools. “Teachers need to [feel] appreciated if they are doing a good job. Too much browbeating and cliquishness exist within SCS.”

It’s less important that the next leader be from Memphis.

Hopson and Ray, the interim superintendent, are both native Memphians. About 36 percent of respondents said it was very important to them that a Memphian take the helm, while 19 percent said it wasn’t at all important.

“We have very specific, local needs and issues,” said Melissa Elsholz, a Memphis parent. “Someone will need to be able to hit the ground running, and a stranger will likely not be able to do this.”

Respondents who said it wasn’t as important to them that the leader be from Memphis clarified that they would still want that leader to understand the effect of poverty on urban school districts.

“I do not care where they are from but they do need to have knowledge of how things work in a city with a high poverty rate,” said Stephanie Cole, a community member.

What should the new leader do in the first six months on the job? Focus on K-3.

When asked, “What is one change you want the new leader to make in his or her first six months on the job?” several respondents asked for changes in grades K-3.

Last month, a Chalkbeat article looked at new research that found some elementary school principals across the state are moving their least effective teachers to critical early grades, which are free of high-stakes tests.  

Memphis kindergarten parent Cate Joyce said she hopes the new leader will “prioritize the best teachers in K-3.”

Sandra Lynn Stepter, a community member, said she would want the next leader to cut class sizes for K-3.

Several respondents expressed support for the recent literacy proposal from Shelby County Schools that would require second-graders to repeat the school year if they don’t read on grade level.

“Begin the process of creating a literacy program or initiative where students must be able to read by third grade or they aren’t promoted to the fourth grade,” said Vernett, an educator, adding that there should be an accountability piece for parents.

Currently, about 26 percent of third-graders in Shelby County Schools can read on grade level as measured by the state’s TNReady test. The district wants to get that number up to 60 percent by next year.

Joyce said she would be looking for a superintendent with a previous track record of improving third-grade reading proficiency.  

“Under this person’s leadership, what was the strategy and demonstrated result?” she asked.