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Four charter organizations in Tennessee’s state-run district under new leadership this school year

Memphis Scholars sixth graders line up to return to home room at the end of the day in April 2017. This school year, the charter organization is one of four in the state-run district with a new top leader.
Memphis Scholars sixth graders line up to return to home room at the end of the day in April 2017. This school year, the charter organization is one of four in the state-run district with a new top leader.
(Photo: Jim Weber/The Commercial Appeal)

Four of the 12 charter school organizations in Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which is focused on turning around low-performing schools, are under a new top leader this academic year.

Here are the new leaders working within the state-run district, though some have worked previously within their respective organizations:

  • Dwayne Tucker was officially named LEAD’s top executive this year. He was previously chairman of the LEAD board, which chose him as interim CEO in August 2017. He replaces Chris Reynolds, who was forced to resign due to differences with the board and given a hefty severance package. LEAD runs two turnaround schools in Nashville, the district’s only schools outside of Memphis.
  • Nickalous Manning has since June served as the leader of the Memphis-based Aspire Public Schools. He is a longtime Memphis educator and worked previously with the charter network, which runs three elementary schools and one middle school in Memphis. He is Aspire Memphis’ second leader following Alison Leslie, who left earlier this year for a job at an education consulting firm.
  • James Dennis is the interim executive director for Memphis Scholars. He replaced founding director Nick Patterson, who is now at the Arkansas Academy for Educational Equity. Memphis Scholars is a charter operator that runs three schools in the state district.
  • Sharon Griffin, the district’s top leader, brought on new central office leaders over the summer: Tonye Smith McBride and Alethea Henry, formerly with Shelby County Schools, and Lisa Settle and Bobby White, who were previously with the state district. The four of them are in charge of directing academics and operating three schools the district runs directly, called the Achievement Schools, as well as overall management of the district. Previously, Verna Ruffin was in charge of the direct-run schools’ academics. She is now a schools superintendent in Waterbury, Connecticut.

The Achievement School District has battled high teacher and leader turnover since it began as Tennessee’s foremost school turnaround initiative in 2012. Recent departures of district veterans, such as Leslie and Patterson, are significant. But the turnover is not uncommon, as retention rates for educators are lower in tough turnaround settings.

“Leadership culture and data drives school turnaround,” Griffin told Chalkbeat. “We know our people and schools don’t just get better on their own, they need to be fully supported. That’s why it will be so important that we as a district have strong leaders in place, and the resources to support those leaders in place.”

LEAD’s Tucker, whose background is in business, not education, said he has a good track record when it comes to recognizing and fostering great leaders. Tucker has focused on building up strong principals at LEAD’s two turnaround schools.

“When we had our leadership change in August, the board was concerned that we were not developing high-performing schools across the network,” Tucker said. “When you get the right school director, and that school director has a vision for what success looks like, everything gets dramatically easier to achieve.”

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