‘It’s a matter of life and death’ — Q&A with New superintendent of state-run Achievement School District

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Kayleigh Skinner, Mississippi Today

Dr. Jermall Wright talks to members of the Yazoo City community about the new Achievement School District on May 15, 2019.

On Aug. 7, 4,000 Mississippi public school students will return to the classroom in a brand new school district with an ambitious goal to improve student achievement in some of the state’s lowest performing schools.

The man tasked with leading this district is Jermall Wright. Formerly the chief academic and accountability officer in Birmingham City Schools, the lifetime educator has also worked in school districts and state departments in Florida as well as Philadelphia, Denver and Washington, D.C.

Now it’s Wright’s job to lead the Yazoo City Municipal and Humphreys County school districts, the first to join the state-run Achievement School District.

The Mississippi Legislature created the Achievement School District during the 2016 legislative session “for the purpose of transforming persistently failing public schools and districts throughout the state into quality educational institutions.” 

Achievement School Districts already exist in other states like Tennessee and North Carolina. In Mississippi, the ASD launched June 1. Under the law, the local school boards are dismantled and the Mississippi Board of Education takes their place.

Mississippi Today education writer Kayleigh Skinner sat down with Wright ahead of the Achievement School District’s inaugural school year to discuss his plans for the new district. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What made you want to come to Mississippi and take, to be frank, a very daunting job?

Wright: So the daunting aspect of the job was…everywhere I’ve gone I’ve chosen difficult places. I think that’s just in my makeup and so that doesn’t scare me or frighten me. I think over the experiences that I’ve had in urban and/or districts who struggle with low performance, the thing that has been my Achilles’ heel despite the progress that we’ve been able to make has been governance.

Jermall Wright

Achievement School District superintendent Dr. Jermall Wright

You play two roles as an educator and as a leader…You play the role of doing what you know you need to do system-wide to be able to address issues of student achievement, and then you play this whole game with traditional board members to get them to understand the work. Especially when they don’t have a background in teaching, learning or education, everybody thinks that they could look at what’s happening in a low performing district and fix it. If it was that easy, we wouldn’t have the number of low performing districts and schools that we have across our nation.

When I read the job description for this job and saw that the governance structure was a bit different, that’s what made me apply. In my mind, the work of improving underperforming systems is hard and extremely complex. Education is politics, you cannot escape it. But doing this work without having to deal with one aspect of politics that normally accompanies the work is why I applied. I’ve been very, very frank and honest with that. 

I’ve listened to you talk a few times. and I’ve noticed every time you make a point that you don’t want to use the word “takeover.” Why is that?

Wright: It has such a negative connotation. One of the things that I appreciate about MDE’s concept of the Achievement School District is yes, I was hired and appointed by MDE to be the superintendent of these former districts that have been rolled into one, but I’m not coming with a bunch of outside folks to quote-unquote take over a district.

We are using our human resources that are already available to us, and so the faces are going to be familiar. … It’s not a state takeover in the sense that there’s not a whole bunch of outside folks coming to descend upon the district and blow things up and do things differently. I’m new, but my team has deep roots both in Humphreys and Yazoo. And those who are new joining us still have deep roots within the Mississippi Delta and the state in general. 

Your job is to improve systemic academic problems, but there are so many things that go into that. Can you talk about the challenges you’re facing now in Humphreys and Yazoo?

Wright: I don’t think it’s any secret that having chronic low student achievement or having low quote-unquote test results – I’m being strategic when I say test results in quotations — but when you see that happen over a period of time it is a byproduct of many other things on the surface. … everything from culture to the political environment. 

In both Yazoo and in Humphreys there is so much underneath the surface that represents systems that are either not defined or just not present at all, to some systems that are in need of a lot of refinement. And so a lot of our work that we will be doing in initial years will be unseen. It’s not going to be seen and felt by the public, but we have to fix systems in terms of how we operate as a district. And once our systems get stronger, then a byproduct of that will be higher measures of outcome in terms of student achievement. 

When you say there’s a lot of different pieces under the surface in these districts, you mean operationally?

Wright: Oh yes. We’ve had to take steps to norm around what our teacher salaries are going to look like. You know, they were different in both places. And so as we’re operating as one district we can’t have teachers in Yazoo making one amount and teachers in Humphreys making another amount. Then there are 12 or 13 other employee groups that we are working to bring parity, but we’re not there yet. You can’t do that in two months. And so that’s just one aspect of systems that have to be submitted and refined. 

Both of these schools are in the Mississippi Delta, where systemic problems with poverty can trickle into education. You talked about the problems that are seen organizationally, but what about outside challenges you face?

Wright: One of the things that I have to tell myself and our team…We would be totally immobilized if we admire all of the issues that are represented within our community at large. As a district there are certain things that we know we have no control over. And it’s no need of us even trying to perseverate those things.

We have to focus on the things that we have control over … the things that we have control over (are) enough to change the trajectory of student outcomes within our district. Not only do I believe it is enough to change the student outcome trajectory of students in our district, it also can serve as a catalyst. A catalyst to be able to jumpstart larger issues and things within the community. 

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Belzoni “The Heart of the Delta,” located in Humphreys County

Your point here is regardless of whatever societal ills we have, education can be an antidote and that’s the one thing that can be controlled?

Wright: Yes…I think for a lot of our students their vision is limited by what they see each and every single day. (To them), there is no world outside of Yazoo City, or there is no world outside of Belzoni or Humphreys County. I think the power that we have as educators is to show our students that there’s more. The minute that they see that there’s more, we’re doing our jobs and the more that they will work to be able to access some of those things that are beyond where they live and what they experience day in and day out.

There is a way out. There’s not only a way out, there’s a way to stay in and address some of the longstanding issues and ills within our society and our own community. 

It’s worth noting that the leader of this school district that is supposed to turn around things, these two majority black school districts, is a black man. MDE data shows there are not that many black male teachers in Mississippi, period. Do you think there is some importance to that? 

Wright: I think — not that this role or my position is relegated to someone who looks like me or who looks like the students and the community in which we serve — but there’s been so much recent research coming out lately about the impact that teachers of color have not just on students of color, but on all students. We’ve talked about this for decades upon decades but now there’s been a lot of empirical research come out that shows the positive impact that educators of color have on all students, and in particular students of color. I think the same holds true for the leaders in which they see. For me in particular, my neighborhood does not look any different than the neighborhood here in Yazoo City. My background is very similar. I don’t think you have to come from that type of background in order to relate, but it helps. It definitely helps.

You are the first leader of the ASD. What, ultimately is your hope for this district? What do you want to come from this? 

Wright: If at whatever point the Achievement School District exits out of Yazoo and exits out of Humphreys County, if we exit and children are able to dream beyond where they live and know that they have options and choices and exercise their right to access those options and choices then we’ve done our job. Not only have we done our job, but I’m sure the data will support that. But the end goal is not just a rise in test scores. I want to be extremely clear that is not our end game. That is how we’re judged, that’s how we’re measured, but if you focus on the right things then test scores are going to take care of themselves. 

What are the “right things?”

Wright: The right things are making sure that when kids enter into your building in the morning they feel safe, they feel supported, they feel as if they are in a place where they can thrive, where they can communicate with adults. Where there are good positive relationships with adults. When there are issues, they go to the adults to help them to solve and not try to take things into their own hands.

I think it looks like a classroom where teachers are providing kids instruction and learning experiences that go beyond a textbook and go beyond a curriculum, but our kids are empowered to think about the lessons and the learning that they are receiving. Think about how can I use this to make a difference in my own community, in my state, in this nation. That we are raising up a group of folks who will become leaders in whatever area in which they choose to work. 

You’ve mentioned this is not about test scores, but what do you want to say to the community who doesn’t understand that? If next year both districts remain an F, how do you explain this to parents and communities?

Wright: I think the simplest way to explain it …  is the Mississippi Achievement School District wasn’t created because things have been going well in these districts for at least the past decade. So if it took us a decade to get to the point where we are now, then one year in the ASD, two years in the ASD, three years in the ASD isn’t going to 100 percent fix and address all of those issues that happened over the decade to get to where we are now.

But what I can tell you is if students aren’t going home saying there is something different about the culture within their schools, about how they feel about school… It shouldn’t take us 10 years to correct that.

… Now I will say, if we’re in year three and our outcomes are not significantly different than they have been prior to the ASD being created, then there is an issue.

You’ve noted that the district still has several teacher vacancies. There are teacher shortages everywhere, but have you found recruiting tough here?

Wright: It is very tough. That is one of the things I have been surprised about. There was a lot of excitement within both places for this work we’re about to launch, (but) I think initially folks were scared so there were some people who decided “Hey, I’m not so sure about this so I’m going to make sure that I secure me a role or job somewhere else.”

I think once we get up and running people are going to see that the work in the Achievement School District is going to look and feel a lot different than it may look and feel in some other parts of the state. And so we are hoping that the good work will spread and we will have folks that want to come work for us versus running away from us. 

So currently there are 37 vacancies in one district and 11 in the other?

Wright: That’s now. In McCoy (Elementary) alone, we had 30 vacancies when I first came here. So in that one school in the district alone, there were 30 vacancies…we had, I want to say close to 80 and 90 teacher vacancies when I arrived.

If we aren’t able to hire the number of certified teachers that we are still working to hire, we have to have a Plan B. What our Plan B cannot be is what it has looked like in our districts prior, and that’s having long-term subs become the teacher of record for our students.

So in cases where we have a certified teacher, we have one or two options that technology is allowing us the benefit to be able to utilize. One is there are a couple of state approved distance learning providers within our state. One is Edgenuity. You can have students take self-paced modules in pretty much every course from K-12 that there is available. You can have a facilitator in the room helping and assisting the students working through those modules.

…And then the second option is we are aligning schedules, bell schedules. So if we’ve got a calculus teacher in Humphreys but we don’t have one in Yazoo but we have students who are eligible to take that course and our schedules are the same… We have the capability of being able to stream the Yazoo students into the class that’s happening in Humphreys because it’s the same time on the schedule.

What do you want the public to know about the ASD?

Wright: I want the message of the Achievement School District to be look what is possible when you have a group of committed adults who are working with the community and working with our parents… I really can count on one hand the number of times that I have introduced myself and people have said positive things about what can be done with the students in which we serve. Most of them have some sort of negative connotation and so we’re going to take all of that negativity and show people our students are just as smart, capable.

Why do you think people have this attitude when they talk to you?

Wright: I do believe that there are segments of our population who believe these kids can’t learn. I know that to be true. You listen to how they talk about them, and people will tell you “You’re not going to be able to fix anything, these places have been like this forever. Kids don’t come to school, it’s a different breed of kids, a different crop of kids , they’re not coming, they don’t want to learn…”

So I know it because of what people say and more than what people say, you can look and see how folks approach the work. Even folks who work in these districts. How you approach your work says a whole lot about what you believe in the kids in which we serve.

How do you combat that?

Wright: … Culture eats strategy for lunch. And so a large part of our initial work is going to be really focusing on culture and really focusing on appealing to the heart of adults who work in our district by really showing this moral imperative that’s tied to the work in which we’re doing.

It’s a matter of life and death for a lot of our children. This is, for some of them, their only hope, their only chance, and their only fight. And so once you understand how serious this work is if it doesn’t cause you to change how you approach your work, regardless of what your role is within the organization, then your tenure in the Achievement School District won’t be long.

But then again…I don’t think that anybody enters this field, and I’m speaking specifically of teachers, nobody enters this field not wanting to do the very very best for children.

Leadership culture plays a large part of that and over time some of those folks just become jaded, for lack of a better sense…A lot of our work is going be how can we help you to become unjaded and see the promise that is in all of the problems that we associate our work with.