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Meet the interim leader of Tennessee’s school turnaround district

When Education Commissioner Candice McQueen sought a temporary chief for Tennessee’s Achievement School District, she turned to a behind-the-scenes administrator who is well-versed about the unique turnaround district.

Kathleen Airhart

Kathleen Airhart

As deputy commissioner and chief operations officer for the Tennessee Department of Education, Kathleen Airhart has played a pivotal role in overhauling the ASD in recent months. She’s overseen operational adjustments following ASD audits, and she’s also been part of the planning team that has sought to get the state-run district back on financial footing. 

Now Airhart will step in as interim superintendent, filling the shoes of Malika Anderson, who is stepping down at the end of this month after almost two years as the ASD’s leader. 

While Tennessee looks for a replacement for Anderson, Airhart will seek to steady the rudder of the ASD following a summertime reshuffling that included cutting its staff in half and hiring a new leadership team. The changes were made to bring financial stability to the district, which was created in 2011 through Tennessee’s now-depleted federal Race to the Top award.

“Given her strong background in both academics and operations, and given her familiarity with the work of the ASD and the transitions it has been through, she was a natural fit to lead the district and support the new leadership team during our search for a new superintendent,” McQueen said.

Airhart says she’s ready for the task.

“I am committed to moving this work forward and supporting the ASD team while it makes key improvements in strategies to serve our students,” she said.

A former Tennessee Superintendent of the Year, Airhart has been deputy commissioner with the state since 2012. She’s also been a teacher, special education supervisor and superintendent of schools in Putnam County.

With 33 schools in Memphis and Nashville, the ASD seeks to turn around low-performing schools by assigning them to operators that convert them to charter schools.