Born and raised a Memphian, multiple generations of my family and I have graduated from Memphis public schools. My parents pushed me to achieve education even further than they achieved. Because of them, I became a first-generation college graduate. That is many of our stories as I look around this room. I’m inspired by the endless opportunities that I see for each of our students. I believe in this school district because it is a pipeline for generational success.  

There is a single parent right now in our district who dropped out of college to raise her daughter. She has worked double shifts to support her daughter and has truly made her daughter’s educational experience at MSCS an opportunity for continued generational success. Her journey through this district has not always been easy, yet she has maintained high expectations.

Whitehaven High School Senior Rianna Morris
Whitehaven High School Senior Rianna Morris

Today, that student is a graduating senior at my alma mater, Whitehaven High School. She has a 4.0 GPA, $2.2 million in scholarships, 40-plus college acceptance letters, and has taken eight dual-enrollment courses. I would like to take a personal point of privilege to recognize Rianna Morris, who reminds me every day that a public education is STILL a pipeline to success! Thank you to her mother for allowing me to ride in the passenger seat and reminding me of the parents and students that we serve each and every day.  She is one of many bright spots in our District as we continue to be “Triumphant Together.”   


Leading by Listening and Questioning

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a straight talker who strives for authentic leadership. What is authentic leadership? For me, it is recognizing progress but also being truly accountable with the needs of our students and parents who are our number one priority, being accountable to our District, and being accountable to our community. In my time as Superintendent, I've been leading through listening AND questioning. I’ve asked myself and my team, “How do we move forward post pandemic? What’s working? And also what’s NOT working?”  

Our students are not only challenging themselves, they’re challenging us. They’re challenging us to think bolder and innovate faster. 

It’s time to move from Reimagining 901 to Transforming the 901. 

Our path forward is through Safety, Respect, and Academics.

Safety is paramount. As we have a conversation around crime as a community, it is important to understand that our District has to invest in safety for over 100,000 students and 14,000 employees. Safety also includes: their emotional well-being and support for families. 

Respect goes a long way, and it is important to be treated and most importantly to treat our parents, our students, and our staff with respect, ultimately improving our culture and climate. As Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said: We must continue building the ABCs of respect in education: Agency, Better Working Conditions, and Competitive salaries.

Academics should be at the core of everything that we do! Our strategies and our resources must directly align to student outcomes. We can no longer be afraid to call out when strategies do not work.


Academic Gains

Last year, students nationwide saw test results that reflect the impact of the pandemic. It’s a harsh reality that we are addressing. Like many urban school districts, we have work to do to improve our academic results, but while we do that work we must also celebrate our bright spots. 

Our students are resilient, and with more time, they will continue to reclaim what the pandemic robbed from them socially, emotionally, and academically.  

In fact, the results on the statewide TCAP test, administered last spring, show that our students  are recovering. For the first time since the 2014-2015 school year, MSCS is a Level 5 school district, the highest distinction available based on TVAAS composite scores! Based on our performance, we have been designated by the state as an ADVANCING district, one step from the top category, with 61 reward schools!   

I am proud to announce that this year we have approximately 3,500 more students enrolled in advanced courses than we did last year. That means more students are taking honors courses, Advanced Placement, Pre-AP, International Baccalaureate, Dual Enrollment, and local and statewide dual-credit courses compared to the prior year. Our students are challenging themselves, and we know that when students have a solid foundation and are exposed to more rigorous content, they move faster. Our initiatives to increase equitable access to advanced courses are working!   

Despite these gains, we acknowledge that 80% of students need extra resources and extra time to get on track. Our Path forward in Academics is to focus on Attendance, PreK Expansion, Literacy Commitments, Extended Learning, and Supports for special populations, such as our English Language Learners.


Attendance Matters

We want all of our students to succeed in the classroom and beyond. But students can’t succeed if they don’t show up. Attendance is one of the best predictors of student success. But unfortunately, across our nation, state, and district, too many students are struggling to succeed because of chronic absenteeism.  

Chronic Absenteeism
Chronic Absenteeism - Tennessee Data and School Accountability Report

The chronic absenteeism rate is approximately 50% among our state-run schools, 29% in Metro-Nashville and Fayette, 27% in Tipton County Schools, 28% in Knox County, and approximately 26% in Memphis-Shelby County Schools District-Managed and Charter-Managed Schools.  

If our students aren’t in class, they can’t pass. We reconvened the Attendance Task Force with the support of School Board Member Stephanie Love chairing this committee. In our conversations on attendance, we are dismantling the barriers that block needed social support.  

To that end, we’re using technology more efficiently to connect parents with resources. Now,  when parents receive a message about their child missing school, they also receive a link to a state database with services in their community such as food pantries and healthcare clinics. 

To connect with other outreach programs, parents also can call MSCS directly at 901-416-6007.

Some other changes we have made to be more intentional about our communication and support are:

  • Automating our District warning notice to parents of students with three or more unexcused absences​. 
  • Adding report card messages to inform parents of absences. 
  • Re-allocating resources for attendance specialists to directly support schools that have the lowest attendance rates.  
  • Partnering with Judge Tarik Sugarmon and Juvenile Court to develop a dedicated docket for attendance when our supports fail. 
  • Partnering with District Attorney Steven Mulroy, so when all of our interventions fail, there are legal consequences for nonattendance. 

In DA Mulroy’s office, they are mentoring in lunch buddy programs, while their office has sponsored both a career fair and a Do The Right Thing Anti Violence Essay Contest. 

We realize the stakes are high, but together our level of support is even higher. It is so important as we close the year that our young scholars attend school every day because if you Miss School, You Miss Out! 


Pre-K Initiative

Pre-K is a critical component to a student’s ability to read on grade level by 3rd grade. However, not all Memphis and Shelby County families have access to affordable Pre-K programs.

Early & Continuing Literacy Investments

Currently, there is proposed legislation that supports Pre-K expansion through the state of Tennessee. We support this initiative. Shelby County census data shows that there is a need for 12,000 Pre-K seats. Right now, MSCS serves approximately 5,300 students, and we want to close the gap. We have the capacity in our schools and are looking to expand with the support of city and county administrations as well as community partners. 

With our current seats: We are aligning curriculums from Pre-K to kindergarten, building capacity through new professional development, and offering Hard-to-Staff Stipends and incentives for new certifications.


Literacy Commitment

Pre-K is where our students learn pre-literacy skills. Literacy and how we teach literacy is under a microscope with the state’s new third-grade retention law. It states that a student must receive a rating of proficient or better in the English/Language Arts portion of the TCAP to advance to the fourth grade. 

The MSCS Literacy Commitment stretches from Pre-K through 12th grade. Each month, we meet with stakeholders in our Strategic Partners for Literacy group to discuss our regional literacy efforts. 

We’ve invested more than $30 million in 750 Specialized Education Assistants (SEA) in grades K-2. In the first year of adding SEAs to classrooms, K-2 students made double-digit gains in ELA scores and were trending up in mathematics.   

We’ve invested $42.3 million in staffing and resources for before-, after-, and in-school tutoring programs designed to provide enrichment in reading and math.  

While we have shown gains academically, we know that our students can achieve stronger academic gains.  We are thoroughly reviewing all of our academic programs, for expeditious change and fidelity of implementation. Here’s what we’ve found so far: Our extended learning programs are providing the highest returns for student growth. But – we need to be more intentional about removing all barriers for our most vulnerable students to attend. 

We are currently participating in tutoring with the Tennessee Accelerating Literacy & Learning Corps (TN ALL Corps). We know that the most effective strategy is high dosage/low ratio tutoring. This is our community call to action: We need more tutors. 

Parents and guardians, we need you to sign up students for tutoring. You can sign up directly using PowerSchool. If you need assistance, please contact [email protected].   

A comprehensive, independent review of our academic programs is upcoming, and it will measure academic outcomes.  

Investing in ESL
Investing in ESL

As our English as a Second Language population continues to grow, we continue to invest in our English Language Learners that now make up 13% of our student population in district-managed schools, almost 13,000 students. In addition to hiring 20 teachers and offering $10,000 sign-on bonus and retention incentives for ESL-Endorsed Teachers, we’ve also strengthened our ability to provide small-group instruction and collaboration with content teachers. English language proficiency is growing. Our TCAP scores for English language learners are growing. And this year, we had more students to ace their English proficiency exam than ever before! We’re excited, but we still have work to do. 


CCTE Pathways to Employment

So what is the goal of all of these interventions? We want our students to be kind, thoughtful and engaged citizens, but we also want them to be employed!

Part of Transforming the 901 is ensuring that our students succeed in our College, Career & Technical Education program, or CCTE. Back in my day, we called this Vo-Tech! But whatever you call it, for high-schoolers it is a path to a career. And, after they graduate, they will be EMPLOYED. 

And not just employed, but gainfully employed in jobs that pay a living wage. Our student industry credentials are up by 7% over this time last school year. That increase is attributed to additional resources provided through federal COVID-relief funds and, of course, wonderful industry experts who also serve as teachers.    

Enrollment in our CCTE program is soaring! We will continue to increase equity in our CCTE programs among schools and also focus on areas related to the workforce needs of our community. 

We are all excited about the development of Blue Oval City, a 3,600-acre Ford mega-campus just outside Memphis where Ford will build electric vehicles. Memphis-Shelby County Schools has asked the Ford Next Generation Learning Program to leverage its deep experience to build more meaningful business engagements. This includes reviewing our CCTE Pathways, as well as the District structures that support school-business partnerships. With this collaboration, we’re learning a lot about our opportunities for improvement. 

One matter that is clear to me as I visit surrounding school districts and their programs, is that we need the business community aligned with the school system. I enjoyed my recent deep dive with Memphis Chamber of Commerce officials and other community leaders and look forward to the continued partnerships and their expertise. 

MSCS is expected to receive a $43 million grant called the CCTE Innovative Schools. This funding will provide an additional $1 million for each high school and $500,000 for each middle school. 

The initial submission of funds will help redesign labs and purchase equipment. We are also aligning our CCTE programs with preferred certifications and outcomes from the State of Tennessee. We will ensure instruction reflects industry partnerships and apprenticeships and work-based learning opportunities. 

We will zero in on post-secondary expansions, specifically in middle schools so that students begin their career exploration earlier and have greater access to computer science, robotics, and STEM courses. I look forward to sharing more information and having more conversations with our business community over the next couple of weeks. 


Safety and Security

College and career development is one of the hottest topics in education right now, and rightfully so. Another hot topic nationwide and especially in Memphis is community crime. 

A lot of talk in our community lately has attempted to connect absences with a spike in youth crime. As discussed earlier, attendance counts, and since becoming superintendent, I’ve put measures in place to tackle the issue of absenteeism.  

Special Projects
Special Projects

Additionally, we have continued to invest over $22 million in social emotional learning. With a federal stimulus grant, we were able to add additional Safety Special Project Coordinators to our staff, which allowed students to receive more mentoring, more life-skills courses, more conflict-resolution sessions, and more social-emotional support through Project STAND, a youth justice program for students in grades 9-12. 

We also have The Pursuit Center. This program addresses negative behaviors by boys between the ages of 14 and 18 and disrupts the school-to-prison pipeline. It serves students who would otherwise be in the Juvenile Court Detention Center. It has a 93.5% success rate in reducing recidivism. 

The most common feedback we hear from Pursuit Center alumni is that they wish they could have started at the center sooner or stayed longer. I would like to thank the Shelby County Mayor’s office for its generous investment in this program. 

We are investing in mentorship and counseling, but we are also investing in technology upgrades to ensure that our campuses are as safe as possible. We have rolled out pilots in schools this year that have been tremendously effective.  

We are putting student and staff safety first, but we need additional local, state, and federal dollars to scale up this technology. The cost of placing this technology and staff who will serve as campus monitors in each and every school is $50 million.

While that’s a sizable price tag, student safety is priceless. We can’t be “Triumphant Together”  unless we are first safe. We look forward to our elected officials investing more in student safety. 

Children of Memphis and Shelby County are not insulated from the crime spikes happening in neighborhoods across the city, but they are resilient and incredibly optimistic. 

I want to share with you a quote from an MSCS student. I want to share with you the voice of hope: “We are the voice of Memphis-Shelby County Schools. We’re the voice of ambition, of opportunity, of change, just don’t give up on us.” 

What a testimony! 

I won’t give up on our students. We won’t give up on our students. We will create safe zones around this city so that children can thrive, and we are partnering with local leaders and organizations to create safe havens after school for our students.  

MSCS is grateful to have impactful leaders like Congressman Steve Cohen and Mr. Brian McLaughlin of the YMCA. (MSCS recently was awarded $1 million in federal funding secured by Congressman Cohen to offer families free and reduced before- and after-school programs at the YMCA.) 

To our partners at the Y and all of our community and faith-based organizations that work with our students after the school bell rings, thank you for giving our students meaningful outlets to explore, grow, and play. 


Stadium Upgrades, New School

Stadium Upgrades
Stadium Upgrades

We understand the importance of play and the mind-body connection. That’s why we’re investing in our stadiums. Halle Stadium, Melrose Stadium, Raleigh-Egypt, and Whitehaven stadiums are all getting upgrades to include LED lighting, new scoreboards, new PA systems, new artificial turf, and locker room and restroom updates, where needed. These renovations will impact thousands of students. We also are updating our middle and high school practice fields.  In our current infrastructure plan, we listened to athletic coaches and directors, and we are discussing more athletic investments in our upcoming budget retreat. 

Speaking of athletics, I’d like to take a moment to congratulate Overton High School for their State basketball championship win! I would also like to congratulate all athletic teams that advanced to their tournaments. They’re an example of “Triumphant Together!” 

We not only need new fields, we need new schools! Recently, we secured $77 million toward the $125 million needed to replace Germantown High School. This replacement funding will support  a new high school in Cordova, the District’s first new high school in 10 years. I want to thank Mayor Lee Harris and the Shelby County Commission for their initial contribution. I definitely want to ensure that I keep top of mind, as we discuss new revenue sources for our community, that we still need additional funding to build the new high school. 


Transforming the 901

Soon, we will announce a 10-year infrastructure plan that includes the input of county and city officials, families and staff, community leaders, and strategic partners, such as Seeding Success. 

We want to tackle our deferred maintenance and create state-of-the-art facilities for our students. Yet, this effort is about more than opening or closing buildings. Transforming the 901 is about a long-term, thoughtful shared vision for rebuilding our community, including increasing wrap-around services, adding Community Schools, and expanding Pre-K and afterschool programs. 

Board Chair Althea Greene recently stated that every student deserves to learn in a new school or new classroom at least one time over the course of their 13-year academic journey. I wholeheartedly agree.   

Now, here’s the tough truth: great facilities and great programs are all for naught if you don’t have great teachers to run them.  

I still remember one of my most influential teachers, Mrs. Carolyn Joyner, my middle school science teacher at John P. Freeman School. Mrs. Joyner had her favorite sayings like “Time on Task.” That was her warning against idle time. I knew not to play around in her class! But as regimented as she was, Mrs. Joyner was also funny and a woman of faith. She had a warm sense of humor that would come out at the most needed times. Mrs. Joyner passed away earlier this month, and social media was filled with tributes to her.  

Carolyn Joyner
Carolyn Joyner

All of our students deserve teachers like Mrs. Joyner, and yet, the inconvenient truth is that we’re in the midst of a national teacher shortage. It’s teachers like Mrs. Joyner that helped me understand the importance of respect and value to improve our culture and climate. 

In my recent meeting with our District Teacher Advisory Council, we discussed decreasing teacher workload, increasing teacher compensation, creating a culture of celebration, and enhancing our retention strategies. Teachers and school leaders, I hear you loud and clear!

To assist with those issues, we’re reducing our footprint in the central office to send more manpower directly to schools. We want more hands on deck in the classroom, not in the central office. And we will be thoughtful and creative with how we use these veteran educators in our classrooms to move the academic needle. 

This is the time to innovate because when innovation meets cooperation we can move our district, our region, and our nation!  

Teaching as a Profession
Teaching as a Profession

At MSCS, we are innovating. Our “Teaching as a Profession” program is one of our newest CCTE programs. We have about 100 high school students at Kingsbury CTC, Melrose, Southwind, Whitehaven, and White Station who are training to become future teachers. And now, with the River City Partnership, some future MSCS graduates will earn a scholarship to the University of Memphis College of Education and come back to MSCS in four or five years with their teaching certificate in hand. 

Teaching takes preparation and training, but most importantly it takes heart.  

It also truly does take teamwork to get it done! Our team is made stronger because of the presence of new and veteran teachers. In order to retain our awesome educators, next year, Memphis-Shelby County Schools, with the blessing of the board, will invest an additional $27.3 million in teacher salaries. 

With this added funding, we can give new teachers the highest starting salary in the metro area. We are currently exploring a starting salary of $50,000.

We are also exploring academic achievement and growth performance bonuses. New teachers and veteran teachers will benefit from this investment so our students and the community can be Triumphant Together!


Thank You

I want to thank the UEA and MSCEA for their strong advocacy during our Collaborative Conferencing process. I also want to thank the YMCA, our Strategic Partners for Literacy, U of M and the River City Partnership, Seeding Success, and our teachers, administrators, board members, and all 14,000  employees across the District who are working together as we press toward progress! And I want to thank our 109,000 students.  

I know that through partnerships, we can travel from trending up to triumphant. If I didn’t believe this in my soul, I wouldn’t have taken the position, and I certainly wouldn’t have lasted through all of the curves and challenges this year has brought.  

Nearly seven months ago, our school board bestowed on me one of the greatest honors of my life when they named me your Interim Superintendent and allowed me to represent the children of Memphis-Shelby County Schools. For the last 203 days, I have led with integrity, I have led by listening, and I have led boldly. The most important thing I’ve learned along the way is that you can’t do this work alone.  

It will take a community-wide effort to move our District further faster, but if we unite, no matter the endeavor, we will be Triumphant Together!

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