/It’s a matter of life and death’ — Q&A with New superintendent of state-run Achievement School District

It’s a matter of life and death’ — Q&A with New superintendent of state-run Achievement School District

Nonprofit Mississippi News On August 7, 4,00 Mississippi public school students will be back in the classrooms in a new school district. The ambitious goal is to increase student achievement in the state’s worst performing schools. Jermall Wright is the man responsible for leading this district. Jermall Wright, a former chief academic and accountability officer for Birmingham City Schools, is now the man responsible for leading the Yazoo City Municipal, Humphreys County schools districts, which are the first to be part of the state-run Achievement Schools District. Mississippi’s 2016 legislative session created the Achievement Schools District “for the purpose transforming persistently failing public school and district throughout the state into high-quality educational institutions.” Achievement School districts are also in existence in North Carolina and Tennessee. The ASD was launched in Mississippi on June 1. The law requires that local school boards be dismantled so that the Mississippi Board of Education can take their place. Kayleigh Skinner, Mississippi Today’s education writer, sat down to talk with Wright about his plans for the district. This interview has been edited to be more concise and clear. Why did you choose to move to Mississippi to take on this very difficult job? Wright: The most daunting part of my job was that I have chosen difficult places every time I went. It’s not in me, so it doesn’t bother me. I look back at the experiences I have had with people in low-performing areas and urban communities. Governance has always been my Achilles’ heel, despite all the achievements we’ve made. As an educator, you have two roles. You must do what is necessary to make sure that student achievement issues are addressed system-wide. Then you must play the whole game with the traditional board members in order to help them understand the work. Even though they may not have any education or teaching experience, everyone believes they can look at the problems in low-performing districts and solve them. It wouldn’t be so easy to have such a large number of schools and districts in low-performing areas across the country. After reading the job description and seeing that the governance structure was slightly different, I applied for the job. I find the work of improving underperforming system performance extremely difficult and complex. Education is politics. This is why I applied. That’s why I applied. I have listened to your talk several times. I noticed that every time you bring up the topic of “takeover,” you avoid using that word. Wright: The word “takeover” has such a negative connotation. MDE’s Achievement School District concept is something I love. Yes, I was hired by MDE to be the Superintendent of these former districts, but I am not going with a bunch outsiders to take over a district. Our human resources are already in place, so we will be using familiar faces. … This is not a state-run takeover, in that it’s not possible for outsiders to invade the district and destroy everything and try new things. Although I am new to the team, my roots are deep in Humphreys as well as Yazoo. Even though we are all new to the Mississippi Delta, those who have been with us for a while still have deep roots in the state and the Mississippi Delta. While your job is to solve systemic academic problems, there are many other things that can be done. What are the current challenges facing you at Humphreys or Yazoo? Wright: It’s not a secret that students with low achievement and test scores are often a sign of a poor education. However, it can be a result of other factors. Everything, from culture to politics. Both in Yazoo as in Humphreys, there’s so much beneath the surface. This includes systems that are not yet defined or not present at all. It also represents systems that need a lot more refinement. A lot of the work we’ll be doing in our first years won’t be seen. Although it won’t be visible and felt by the general public, we must fix our systems regarding how we operate as districts. Higher student achievement will result if our systems are stronger. You mean operationally when you say that there are many pieces beneath the surface of these districts. Wright: Yes. We have had to make sure that there is a standard for what teacher salaries will look like. They were very different in each place. Because we operate as one district, it is impossible for teachers in Yazoo to make one amount while teachers in Humphreys can make another. We are still working on parity for 12 to 13 other employee groups. It takes two months to accomplish this. This is just one aspect of the systems that must be submitted and improved. These schools are located in the Mississippi Delta where poverty systemic problems can spill over into education. While you have spoken about problems within the organization, what about external challenges? Wright: I must tell my team and myself that we would be completely immobilized if all the problems in our community were appreciated. There are some things we don’t have control over as a district. It doesn’t matter if we try to endure those things. It is important to be focused on what we can control… those things are enough to alter the trajectory of student outcomes in our district. It is possible to be a catalyst and change the trajectory of student outcomes in my district. It can be used as a catalyst to help others and jumpstart bigger issues within the community. You are pointing out that education can be an antidote to any social ills. This is the only thing that can be controlled. Wright: I believe so. For many of our students, their vision is limited due to what they see every day. They believe there is no other world than Yazoo City or Belzoni, or Humphreys County. As educators, I believe that our power is to teach our students there’s more. Once they realize that there is more, they will be more willing to work harder to have access to the things they want. There’s a way out. There is a way out. But there is also a way to stay and fix some long-standing problems and ills in our society. It is worth noting, however, that the leader of these two predominantly black school districts is a black man. MDE data indicates that Mississippi has very few black male teachers. Is there any value in that? Wright: It’s not that my role or my job is limited to people who look like me, or the students or the community we serve. But there has been so much research lately on the positive impact teachers of color have on all students. This has been discussed for many decades, but there is now empirical evidence that shows the positive effect that educators of colour have on all students, especially students of color. The same applies to the leaders they see. My neighborhood is not any different from the one in Yazoo City. My family is very similar to yours. Although you don’t have to be from the same background to relate to me, it does help. It is definitely helpful. You are the ASD’s first leader. What is the ultimate goal of this district? What are you hoping to achieve from this district? Wright: At whatever point Achievement School District leaves Yazoo, it will leave Humphreys County. If children can dream beyond their current location and have the ability to know they have choices and options and exercise their rights to access them, then we’ve completed our job. We have done our job. I am confident that the data will back it. The end goal is more than just increasing test scores. It is not our goal, I want to stress that. This is how we are judged and measured. But if we focus on the right things, test scores will take care of themselves. Wright: What are the “right” things? Wright: Making sure children feel safe and supported when they enter your building each morning. They also feel like they can communicate with adults. Good relationships with adults are a good thing. They turn to adults when they have problems and don’t try to fix them themselves. It looks like a classroom, where teachers provide instruction and learning experiences beyond what is in a textbook or a curriculum. But our children are empowered to reflect on the lessons they have learned and to make their own decisions about how to use the learning. Consider how you can use this to make an impact in your community, in your state, and in the country. We are creating leaders in any area they choose. This isn’t about test scores. What do you have to say to those in the community that don’t get it? How do you explain to parents and communities that both districts will remain an F next year? Wright: The easiest way to explain it is that the Mississippi Achievement School district wasn’t created because these districts have been doing well for at least the last decade. It took us 10 years to get here, so one year in ASD, two in ASD, and three in ASD won’t fix all the problems that occurred over the past decade. However, I can assure you that if students don’t go home stating there’s something wrong with the school’s culture or how they feel about school, it shouldn’t take them 10 years to fix that. … I’ll be honest, if our outcomes in year three aren’t significantly different from what they were before the ASD was created, there is a problem. It has been noted that there are still a lot of teacher vacancies in the district. Although there are many teacher shortages, have you had any difficulty recruiting here? Wright: It’s very difficult. This is something I was surprised by. There was excitement in both places about the new work, but some were afraid so they decided to go to another place. I believe once we are up and running, people will see that the Achievement School District work is going to be very different from what it might feel like in other parts of the state. We are hopeful that good work will spread to other people and that they will be able to attract those who want the opportunity to work with us, rather than running from us. So, currently there are 37 vacancies within one district and 11 elsewhere. Wright: That’s now. There were 30 vacancies in McCoy Elementary alone when I arrived. In that school, we had 30 vacancies. We had between 80 and 90 teacher positions when I arrived. We need a plan B in case we can’t hire the certified teachers we want to hire. Our Plan B can’t be the same as it was in previous districts. That plan would include having long-term subs to become our teacher of record. In cases where a teacher is certified, there are two or three options that technology allows us to use. One is that there are several state-approved distance learning providers in our state. Edgenuity is one. Students can self-pace modules in almost every course available from K-12. A facilitator can be present to assist students in completing those modules. The second option is to align schedules, bell times. If we have a Humphreys calculus teacher, but not one in Yazoo, but we have students who can take the course and our schedules match… We have the ability to stream the Yazoo students to the Humphreys class because it’s the same times on the schedule. What information do you want to share with the public about the ASD Wright: I want to convey the message that the Achievement School District is able to show the world what’s possible when there are committed adults working together with parents and the community. I can count on one side the number of times I have been introduced and people have expressed positive thoughts about the potential for the students we serve. Many of these negative associations have a negative connotation. We’re going to ignore that and show everyone our students are smart and capable. What is it about people who have this attitude towards you that makes them so obnoxious? Wright: I believe there are certain segments of the population that believe these children can’t learn. That is what I know to be true. Listen to what people say about them. They will tell you that they can’t fix anything because these places have been this way for a long time. It’s not a school for kids. They don’t go there. These districts are home to many people. Your approach to your work speaks volumes about how you feel about the children you serve. What can you do to combat this? Wright: Culture is strategy’s lunch. So a lot of our work will be centered on culture. We’ll also focus on appeal to the hearts of the adults in our district through demonstrating the moral imperative that is tied to our work. For many of our children, it’s their only hope. For some, this is their only hope, their only chance and their only fight. Once you realize how important this work is, and if it doesn’t make you change the way you approach your work, no matter what your role within the organization, your tenure at Achievement School District will not last long. However, I don’t believe that anyone enters this profession, especially teachers. They want to do their best for the children. That is a big part of leadership culture. Some people get jaded over time.