‘We cannot continue to operate as we have’: Jackson’s new schools chief predicts painful, but lasting change

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Superintendent Dr. Errick L. Greene speaks during a public meeting about the findings of the student based study on the school district during a public meeting at the Jackson Convention Complex Thursday, November 29, 2018.

Superintendent Dr. Errick L. Greene speaks during a public meeting about the findings of the student based study on the school district during a public meeting at the Jackson Convention Complex Thursday, November 29, 2018.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

When Errick Greene stepped into the role of superintendent of the Jackson Public School District in October, he had his work cut out for him.

A  year prior, the 24,000-student district had narrowly avoided a state takeover for issues such as unlicensed teaching staff, sub-par facilities, problems with record-keeping and data, and more.

Instead of signing off on the takeover, Gov. Phil Bryant, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba and the W.K. Kellogg foundation announced a third option to address these systemic issues with the creation of the Better Together Commission. Lumumba also appointed a new school board, which hit the ground running.

The commission recently concluded its work with the release of a critical report highlighting problems with organization and communication, among other issues.

Mississippi Today spoke with Greene to learn more about what drew him from Tulsa, Okla., to Jackson, and what his administration has in store to address the district’s problems.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Mississippi Today: What drew you to come work in Jackson?

Dr. Errick Greene: There are a few reasons I would say. One, I was at that point where I was looking to move into the superintendency and was being pretty deliberate about where — where I wanted to serve, the kind of community, the context in which I wanted to serve. I definitely knew I wanted to serve a community with lots of students who look like me. That was pretty high on my list. I grew up in Flint, Mich., and so I wanted to serve in a community with a large number of folks who are working class, who are (from) lower income households.

I believe two things really sold me on Jackson, though. One, the board being a new board, being reconstituted, having met the board during the interview process it was just clear to me that these were folks who were wholly committed to the district.

The other big selling point on the district included having a governor who had stated and established his own commitment to the district’s major improvement. And a mayor, a dynamic mayor, who established and named his commitment to that. What I sensed is a larger community-wide commitment to ‘we cannot continue to operate as we have.’

We’ve named low performance, financial challenges (and) buildings and facilities being a challenge (as well as) some of the behaviors of some students at least…. Here, I heard loudly and clearly that folks were prepared for major change.

Is that intimidating, to step into a district that has these challenges?

Yes. The role itself is intimidating and, frankly, I don’t know that it wouldn’t be intimidating if it were a small district, or if it were a rural district, or if it were a district that didn’t have a lot of the challenges that we happen to have today.

I’ve got a smart, sane board who are committed to doing really good for kids and holding me and everyone else accountable for that happening. We’ve got a mayor, a governor (and) partners all around the city — frankly, all around the state — who are looking to and rooting for Jackson. We’ve got parents who have said, “Enough is enough, this has got to be different.”

Everyone says turnaround takes time, but what is some of the low-hanging fruit that you’re trying to tackle first?

It does take time, and we didn’t get where we are overnight and so the thought … that we would change so dramatically overnight is ludicrous. We are going to do our part to highlight the things that are changing over time so that people can see it.

As people start to see a system, a structure of some practices that don’t look like what they looked like before, we can’t now get upset. Remember, we asked for change. Hang in there with us. It’s going to be painful early on but, most medicine and surgeries and all of those things that make us better, it is painful.

Some of the first things we absolutely have to do is…attention to our recruitment and retention of teachers. Looking at the staffing level that we need for teachers, where do we have critical shortages? For sure in elementary and in special education. Those are our critical shortages. And if you look at contents, mathematics just struggle in those areas. If we’re not able to right now today attract folks from outside or elsewhere into those roles, how do we begin developing teachers that we’re going to need down the road?

(That involves) identifying the folks who might be about to graduate or have just graduated, have the credentials and could be placed in an alternative certification process. But also (by) identifying students in middle school or high school who might have some interest in teaching to start to build that pipeline so that we don’t find ourselves someday looking for teachers and we haven’t done the groundwork to build up.

Frankly, I believe the same for leadership. We shouldn’t just wait until we need the leader to start looking. Right now (we should ask): Who is in our teacher ranks who might be interested in and has shown some great capacity and might be interested in leading a school? You’ve got to be looking down the road, and our strategic plan will help with a bit of that but as I said, there is likely some innovation.

For (teacher) retention, yes, we’ve got to look at finances and working with the state and looking at all options for rethinking and bolstering our pay for educators. Most research that you look at (about) retention or attrition of teachers … while pay is listed, it’s rarely number one. Number one is typically a lack of support or folks feeling a lack of buy-in and belonging in the school.

How do we better understand who our teachers are and what their needs are, provide them with consistent feedback? (We must provide) … really, really hard-hitting feedback and professional development that helps people to stick around. To feel some sense of success and to want to hang in there and do that and do more than that. And eventually be able to share those successes with others, other teachers or as a leader and a supervisor of teachers.

As well, we’ve got a lot of work around customer service. The reality is our parents and students are clients, our customers. And they get to choose. We’ve got to treat them as though they’ve got choices. We’ve got to be responsive to them. They call with an issue, we’ve got to work through those things. We can’t be dismissive.

Is that something you think JPS has dropped the ball on?

I’ve definitely heard from some parents (on) specific issues since I’ve been here in the last couple of months. Part of the challenge is we’ve got to be responsive and work directly with and collaboratively with parents and community members. We’ve got to work together with folks to ensure our schools are experienced as open, collaborative safe places for people to be, and to engage.

The other piece, though, is the customer service within the system. The extent to which any of us working outside of schools understand what happens in schools — anticipating needs, being responsive, being communicative. It’s a two-way communication so that everyone sees themselves in the success of students. How do I organize my work and ensure that what I do as the payroll clerk, the custodian, electrician, plumber, lead counselor (or) whatever it might be, that I see myself in student success?

What do you think about the challenges that come with educating a student demographic like the one in JPS?

That’s something that we’ve got to talk about openly. And there’s kind of a tightrope we’ve got to walk because there is the naming of challenges and there are some realities that come with any student living in a low-income home or who is living with grandma or grandpa and not with parents. Or in a home where there is domestic violence or drug use or (a) situation where there is a serious illness of a parent. It impedes their ability to parent in the way that they might want to.

There are real challenges that come along with that, and those bleed into the school. That’s true if we’re just talking about one student or one family. Multiply that by large numbers within a neighborhood or a city, and you’ve got this compounded poverty and social ills that challenge students readiness to engage in education, challenge their own social emotional readiness. So they show up with all kinds of anxieties and grief and loss and fears. All kinds of things that just make it hard for anyone, let alone a 5- or 10- or 15-year-old to be in a classroom with others who might have similar challenges and be open to learning.

Addressing that from the school’s standpoint is costly. It costs more to address those needs of the students that we have and love. Trying to backfill what (students) may not be getting or learning at home academically, socially, you name it, that costs more. Sometimes it’s more people. Certainly it’s more time. Perhaps it’s more interventions and that sort of thing.

When you start to look at the realities of the lives that people are living and what it takes to combat and challenge and push against and push through those challenges, it starts to require more resourcing — oftentimes different approaches. For sure, it requires some cultural relevance and empathy and understanding that you might not require in another setting.

Does that mean more professional development for teachers? Hiring more guidance counselors?

More/different. The reality is, as a teacher (and) a person, my capacity to learn is what it is at one time. Over time, I can continue to learn and grow, but you can only teach me so much right now. We can’t assume that just because we can build out some professional development sessions and hire coaches or consultants, mentors, teachers and whatnot that the teacher, who is learning, can consume all of that and make it their own and fold it in to their practice. It actually takes time. And you’ve got to be thoughtful about how you stage all of that.

It impacts how you staff schools, decisions you make. Do we need a behavior specialist here, do we need two counselors here? When you look at the needs, do we need maybe two school leaders to address the needs and help them to move forward? Because no one, none of us and certainly no one outside of the district will make any allowances as it pertains to achievement. We still expect every school to achieve at the highest level.

Jackson is kind of unique in that right now — you’re the only district that has multiple charter schools. How do you anticipate navigating that relationship?

I firmly believe that our job is not to remove the ‘competition,’ but to be the competition. I firmly believe that, that’s not just ego talking.

We’ve got to be better. We’ve got to do our job better. We’ve got to be better resourced in terms of skill and capacity. We’ve got to create a ‘wow’ experience so that even if you want to consider this other school over here, there is something about this experience that tugs on you.

Two, we need to stop acting like we can’t reach out to charters and have a conversation. You’re a charter operator, you’re looking at a property in this neighborhood. There’s nothing precluding me from having a conversation about, ‘Why this neighborhood? We actually don’t serve many students or aren’t getting many students in this neighborhood. Would you consider being there?’ And since we as the district actually have some properties, that’s a smart adult collaborative conversation that we should be having.

By law, they can exist. The conversation right now has to be how we coexist in this space and from our own perspectives, vantage points, perch whatever, how can we serve families effectively?

Since you’ve stepped into the role it seems like you’ve made a concerted effort to do more community engagement. Why is that, and why do you think that’s important?

The board, the mayor, folks who have been involved in working through this third way, this new iteration of JPS, made some promises. Smart promises to the community around greater engagement. As I said earlier, there is no educating young people without engaging parents. It just doesn’t work. We need them. It’s not just we need you when there’s a problem or at the end of the day. We need you at the start of the day when it’s time to talk through the things that exist and how we might address those things together.

Part of my job as the lead learner, lead educator in the district is to help to provide some context and clarity for what I’ve seen, what I’ve read in our books in terms of finances and what I’ve seen of our staff and those sorts of things. Folks shouldn’t be wondering about that. That’s our job to communicate more directly and effectively.

Lastly, I’ll say it’s part of who I am. My leadership style is kind of relational, it’s important to me that I build relationships with folks so that when it’s time to have a hard conversation we can have that hard conversation. We don’t have to yell and scream at one another and disrespect one another. We can have a hard conversation. We can agree or disagree, but we can do that as individuals who actually have some level of respect for one another so the conversation is more fruitful.