Fredrick Murray, interim superintendent for Jackson Public Schools Credit: Jackson Public Schools

The Jackson Public School District is in a period of transition, and interim superintendent Freddrick Murray is tasked with seeing it through.

An April 2016 audit of the district by the Mississippi Department of Education found multiple accreditation violations, which resulted in the district being placed on probationary status. Since then, the district received an ‘F’ rating on its 2015-2016 accountability ratings, and former Superintendent Cedrick Gray resigned.

In November, the state Board of Education rejected the first version of the district’s corrective action plan put in place to fix the violations, saying there were not enough specifics for both actions and timelines in which the actions would be completed. The state board accepted the school district’s revised plan in December.

If the district loses its accreditation status, schools will not be allowed to participate in more than half of the regular season of any athletic activity, in addition to speech and debate, choral music and band. All post-season activities are also suspended, and the school district is not allowed to hold any special games, parades, tournaments or competitions of any kind. The governor could also declare a state of emergency in the school district, which would lead to the overhaul of district leadership and the appointment of a conservator by the state.

Murray stepped in as interim superintendent in November 2016. He spoke with Mississippi Today about his new role as superintendent, the work being done to keep JPS’ accreditation, and what the next person who steps into the position should know about the state’s second-largest school district.

Where does the district stand with its corrective action plan?

The Corrective Action Plan has been approved, or accepted. So it’s been that way for a month or so. One of the major concerns from MDE, specifically from the state superintendent, she came to one of our board meetings and mentioned that they had some concerns about our ability to implement. And so we heard that we are making every effort to make sure that that is not an issue and the implementation is done, and done well.

Q: What specific things are being done to fix the issues pointed out by MDE?

A: Specifically there were some major items…But the major issues centered around safety, transportation, the actual curriculum and instruction pieces in our district. And so that’s kind of our focus that we’ve taken. We’ve beefed up safety in buildings, we’ve put some processes in place to work on student movement. We’ve done some things to make sure that we are engaged with students in the classroom so we’re not necessarily where we want to be, but we’ve made tremendous strides since last year.

Q: How confident are you that the district will be able to keep its accreditation?

A: I’m very confident…We are making sure that everyone in our organization understands what to do, how to do it and why we’re doing it. And we’re holding people accountable. So when you do that you get the results that you aim for.

Q: You and the board have been in frequent communication with MDE, but is your staff is aware of how high the stakes are?

A: Oh yes. Again, the state superintendent came and spoke with the board. In no uncertain terms she explained the sense of urgency that exists. And we took that seriously. We were focused before, but I think that it gave us that the information that we needed for everybody in the district. So we made a very deliberate effort to make sure that everybody understood where we were. We’re making sure we have system in place to not only guide our work but to…make sure we’re doing what we say we’re gonna do.

I think its important for individuals to know that there are some major changes taking place in JPS for the better. There’s some great things happening in our district. We do have a sense of urgency and everybody in the district understands what’s at stake. This district belongs to the citizens of Jackson, Mississippi and we know as a community if we want it to remain that way then we have to do the work, and we have to do the work well.

Q: Amidst all this, the district is also searching for a new superintendent. Have you considered applying?

A: I’ve considered it. When this process started in the contract they will allow me to apply if I choose to. So I think in that I owe it to them to consider. My focus now is to help us get through this transitional period. And when that process plays out I’ll take a closer look at whether that will be something that I will decide to do.

Q: What’s it been like stepping into a leadership position in the district during this period?

A: The transition has not been bad. I’ve been in this district for over 20 years and I’ve been in different capacities. I know the system, I’ve been a part of it. When I say I know the system, I know the people, I know where I need to go to get something done. That’s allowed me to hit the ground running with the work. We’ve made some shifts to align our organizational chart to make sure that we can actually monitor what was being expected. We’ve rolled out an inspectional method, which is something we didn’t have. Technical assistance is being provided by the Mississippi Department of Education. We are sending teachers to other trainings on classroom management, lesson planning. We’re working with our principals every week. (We have a) meeting on Thursday afternoons so that we can talk to our principals about the CAP, about issues that they’re having, concerns they’re having, things they don’t understand. We’re having face to face conversations with them even after the school day.

Q: What does the next superintendent need to know to understand JPS?

A: I think the important thing to know is you need to have a knowledge of the community. You need to be knowledgeable of the resources that are available. You need to be able to leverage the collective impact of this city. We have some great partners, but we have to align those resources and we have to make sure that all of this help has a singular focus, and that’s on student achievement. I think the person has to also understand that we have to be collaborative. That means bringing people to the table that you may not agree with or that you may not even like.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.