In the first address of its kind in Memphis, Superintendent Joris Ray said he will stay the course on his current initiatives, including improving literacy, reworking a massive facilities plan, and boosting academic performance for black boys.
“The state of our district is strong,” Ray began with applause from the crowd of 400 gathered at the Holiday Inn ballroom on the University of Memphis campus. “However, we have areas of opportunity that we must address.”
His 45-minute “State of the District” speech emphasized that none of the Shelby County Schools’ goals would be met without more state and local funding, less spending on district administration, and commitments from community members to volunteer and “speak life” about Memphis students.
“It is a gross understatement to say Shelby County Schools has historically operated under difficult conditions,” Ray said. “For example, inequitable funding, economic instability, and increasing challenges of violence and poverty.”
Ray highlighted schools that have come off the state’s watchlist for poor academics, award-winning teachers in attendance, more trade job certifications for students, and district employees who have undergone training for childhood trauma.
Ray, whose whole career has been spent in Memphis schools, took over as interim superintendent last January. In April, the school board abandoned a national search and hired him with a four-year contract. He began his first full school year as leader of the state’s largest district in August.
Below are summaries of Ray’s priorities for the coming year:
3rd grade commitment: The district is bolstering its literacy instruction to prepare for a new retention policy for second-graders who do not meet certain reading criteria in the 2021-22 school year. Only a quarter of the district’s youngest students met the state requirements for reading last year.
Equity: Ray rolled out goals in July to improve academic performance for black boys, who often rank poorly in district statistics. The district recently finished its first round of universal screening for gifted classes, resulting in 600 more K-2 students qualifying for services. Some staff from each school are receiving training in implicit bias and how that shows up in the classroom. Ray said the district is still working to bring more advanced courses that count for college credit to more high schools.
Reimagining 901: Ray launched a listening tour last fall to hear ideas on how to rework a massive facilities plan left by the former superintendent to consolidate 28 aging school buildings into 10 new ones. Ray said the plan did not focus enough on academics and how programs should be distributed throughout the city. A revised plan is set to be unveiled this spring.
We are 901: The initiative, named after the city’s area code, aims to garner more community support for schools. It started last spring with a rally at Levitt Shell. “I believe the vast majority of teachers and students are getting it right. But that’s not what you see on the headlines,” he said. “We have to highlight that story, because if we don’t, who will?”
Mary McIntosh, an award-winning teacher who has led implicit bias conversations at Central High School where she works, called the superintendent’s priorities “student-focused.”
“In the classroom, I live that day to day,” she said after the speech.
“We need to look at our dedication and our understanding around equity,” she said. District leaders “are realistic that this is a journey, which allows us as adults to have grace and space rather than change overnight…. This is a paradigm shift.”
Da’Charius Brooks, a board member for the district’s student congress, called Ray’s vision “amazing.”
“Any time we have people in power [working] for us, that’s a good thing,” he said.
Tikeila Rucker, the president of the United Education Association of Shelby County, one of the city’s two teacher associations, said her organization did not receive an invitation to the event, paid for by SchoolSeed, the fundraiser for the district. She said it was part of Ray’s pattern of “devaluing” unions since taking office.
“It’s sad to see the relationship we’ve tried to establish over the last four years and it results in the union not even receiving an invitation,” she said.
Ray called on all Memphians to join the district in its work with students.
“This is hard work, but this is also ‘heart’ work,” Ray said. “And so today, I just want you to search your heart and ask yourself, ‘Have you been a change champion? What have you been saying about the children of Shelby County Schools?’”