The leader of Tennessee’s turnaround district’s highest-performing school is heading to a new position this summer, a year after the fourth superintendent change in five years.
In three years, Yolanda Dandridge has lifted Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary School out of the bottom 2% of all schools in the state. The school still struggles academically, but it is now in the bottom 15% of districts.
Georgian Hills is one of 26 schools that make up the Achievement School District. The school and three others are directly managed by the state; the rest are run by outside charter organizations. Created in 2012, the achievement district was designed to take over low-performing schools and boost them academically. According to the state, nine of the schools it oversees have moved out of the bottom 5 percent.
Dandridge’s departure comes as the district is also trying to hire a new leader for another of the schools it runs, Whitney Achievement Elementary School.
This means district leader Sharon Griffin must replace two of the three principals who directly report to her, as Corning and Frayser elementary schools share a leader. The departures are a window into some of the chaos resulting from changes under Griffin, who was named district leader last year.
The superintendent turnover, and the turmoil that brings, have taken a toll on educators.
“I felt like it was that time to move from Georgian Hills,” Dandridge said. “After going through four different ASD leadership teams, timing is everything. At this moment at this time, I felt like it was the right decision.”
Meanwhile, three miles away from Georgian Hills, Whitney Elementary had a challenging year, after its principal was fired in October and an assistant principal stepped in for the rest of the school year.
For both elementary schools, Griffin told Chalkbeat she expects to name new leaders soon.
Griffin acknowledged that losing its principal created anxiety at Whitney, adding: “Turnaround work is difficult, and leaders need a unique skill set. We’re finding leaders that can have the relationship with parents and the community needed, and also not lower expectations for students.”
Griffin praised the work Dandridge did at Georgian Hills, calling her one of the district’s most effective leaders.
“She brought a wealth of knowledge,” Griffin said. “We will continue leaning on Yolanda in her new role.”
Dandridge is leaving for charter operator Memphis Scholars. She will take charge of the Memphis-based charter organization’s Caldwell Guthrie Elementary School. This means she will still work for the Achievement School District, but for Memphis Scholars, rather than directly for Griffin.
She’s been at Georgian Hills as a teacher, assistant principal, and principal since 2013, and told Chalkbeat that she felt the timing was right to move on to a new role. Griffin was the fourth superintendent since the district was founded, replacing interim Kathleen Airhart.
“I have families where I taught them as students, and their siblings came through the school when I was principal,” Dandridge said. “I love this community, and I’m most proud of us for improving the school out of the bottom 5% and maintaining that.”
Tennessee’s turnaround district started out as the cornerstone of the state’s strategy to improve low-performing schools in 2012. It was launched with the belief that if the state took over those schools and gave them to charter organizations to run, the schools would improve under the new management.
But for the most part, the district hasn’t produced large academic gains – making Dandridge’s success with Georgian Hills starker. Although the elementary school is in the bottom 15% of schools in the state, it is the top academic performer in the district.
Dandridge said her first job at her new school will be to listen and create a plan of action, but she will carry over lessons learned from Georgian Hills, such as how to best support teachers and parents.
“I’m really excited about the move,” she said. “Of course I am going to miss my babies and my families. That’s the hardest part about this for me.”