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To launch first new iZone school, Shelby County taps established leader

Ruma Kumar

Rodney Rowan has done what few principals have managed to do — turn around a long-struggling school. Now, he’s being asked to replicate that success.

Rowan will leave Cherokee Elementary School after almost four years to become the founding principal of Westhaven Elementary School in Memphis, Shelby County Schools chief Dorsey Hopson announced on Tuesday. Both schools are part of the district’s Innovation Zone, which is rapidly gaining national recognition for posting test score gains that outpace other turnaround efforts.

His move means that the iZone’s first startup school will open with a leader fluent in the initiative’s priorities and models. But it also means that one of the iZone’s earliest successes will undergo a major transition. The district hasn’t yet chosen Rowan’s replacement.

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Cherokee was part of the first set of schools to join the iZone, which the district created in 2012 to help its most struggling schools improve. Rowan quickly emerged as a poster child for the initiative as he used administrative autonomy and additional funding to add an extra hour to the school day and boost training for teachers. The school’s test scores jumped sharply.

Now, he’ll lead the first startup school to join the iZone. Westhaven is opening in South Memphis and will enroll students from three nearby schools that are closing this year because of low enrollment and poor performance — Fairley, Raineshaven and Westhaven. Almost all of those students are poor, and many have special needs.

“It’s critical that the superintendent gets this hire right and it needs to be someone proven,” said Lionel Cable, who just left an iZone principalship to become an iZone instructional leadership director. “It makes sense to make sure a very strong leader is there.”

Hopson said Rowan, who is from the community near Westhaven, was eager for the challenge of bringing what he has learned at a small school to one that is much larger. Westhaven will enroll more than 1,000 students, compared to about 400 at Cherokee.

Rowan likes to say schools should be “intentional, collaborative and urgent” — or ICU, like an intensive-care unit at a hospital.

That has meant personally rewriting the school’s curriculum to reflect the skills that students need to demonstrate on state tests and pushing teachers to tailor their lessons based on how far students have progressed. Then, “instead of teaching what they already know, I’m able to boost them up,” he told Chalkbeat.

It has meant working to involve parents, who often can be disengaged from their children’s schools. “You have to make them comfortable enough to be transparent with you about the things that they need,” Rowan told Chalkbeat in October when then-U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited Memphis’ iZone. “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”

And it has meant rewarding students with perfect attendance with parties and an opportunity to wear jeans to school and keeping a school closet stocked with lightly worn clothing so that inadequate attire can never keep students from class.

Rowan told Chalkbeat last year that improved attendance fueled Cherokee’s uncommonly strong test scores gains. A third of students last year met the state’s standards in math and two thirds did so in reading, up from less than 15 percent in 2010.

One of Rowan’s first tasks at Westhaven will be to build a team that can effectively reach students who face a wide array of challenges including poverty, disabilities and the recent experience of having changed schools. Speaking to Chalkbeat recently, he offered a clue about how he might approach that work.

“I hire attitude and train skill,” he said.

John Bush, the newly appointed principal of Douglass High School, is recognized at the Shelby County school board meeting.
John Bush, the newly appointed principal of Douglass High School, is recognized at the Shelby County school board meeting.
Laura Faith Kebede

Rowan was only one of four principals named to head iZone schools on Tuesday.

John Bush, who has been assistant principal at Booker T. Washington High School for the last two years, will lead Douglass High School, starting April 4.

Two other principals will stay on as their schools transition into the district’s turnaround initiative. Kelvin Meeks will continue at Mitchell High School, which he has led for two years, and Julia Callaway will continue at Westwood High School after taking over in July. (She previously led Wooddale Middle School but left when Green Dot Public Schools, a charter network, assumed management.)

The schools are joining the iZone this summer, allowing all students in iZone middle schools to continue to high schools that are also part of the initiative for the first time.

Mitchell High School last year posted the highest score on the state’s measure of student growth. But the school needs the additional resources from the iZone — an extra hour in the school day, boosted teacher support and more principal autonomy — to continue that growth, Meeks said.

“With the additional resources, we’ll be able to do that,” he said. “Resources is the key.”

Correction: March 30, 2016: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the name of Raineshaven Elementary School.

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