Shelby County has its first-ever director of education — and he is responsible for fostering collaboration among the county’s seven school systems.
Cedrick Gray will hold the newly created position, and report to Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris.
Gray is a career educator, who got his start in Memphis and led districts in Tennessee and Mississippi.
Harris appointed Gray to the role, which is dedicated to repairing often contentious relationships between the school systems the county funds, but he doesn’t have the power to force collaboration. County schools and districts have become increasingly competitive with one another in recent years, amid the introduction of charter schools, and the creation of six suburban school systems, after the city and county merged their districts.
“If the competitiveness creates innovation, then that innovation begs for collaboration,” said Gray, who starts Jan. 7. His annual salary will be $119,465.
Gray is a former superintendent of Jackson Public Schools in Mississippi and of Fayette County in Tennessee. But he started his career in Memphis as a teacher at Douglass Elementary. He went on to become principal of Craigmont Middle and Lester K-8. Most recently, he trained principal supervisors for the nonprofit New Leaders in several states while based in Memphis.
He said he hopes to focus his efforts on expanding preschool options for families living in poverty, developing entrepreneurship opportunities for youth, preparing students for college or the workforce, and ensuring school buildings are “high-quality and modernized,” he said. Shelby County Schools outgoing superintendent, Dorsey Hopson, endorsed Gray’s appointment.
“Dr. Gray’s external and statewide relationships will be key assets as Mayor Harris looks to strengthen his collaboration with all school districts in Shelby County,” Hopson, who leads the county’s largest school district, said in a statement. “He is a proven student-centered leader who has a wealth of experience inside and outside of Shelby County.”
During his four-year tenure leading Jackson Public schools, student test scores rose, as did graduation rates. His track record prompted the National Association of School Superintendents to name Gray a superintendent of the year in 2016. But shortly after, Mississippi gave the district’s the state’s lowest rating. Then Gray resigned within a month of a district-wide audit, whose findings threatened the district’s accreditation.
“Just like here in Shelby County, the standards changed, the assessment changed, and the accountability system changed, and I recommended wholesale changes for [Jackson Public Schools],” he told Chalkbeat. “The school board at the time could not agree on what those changes would be, so we agreed to disagree.”
Gray said he will draw on lessons learned during his time in Jackson, explaining: “I learned a great deal about leadership, governance, policy and more importantly, about myself. And I’ve taken the last two years to reflect on those practices and now I know I am blessed to prepared for the next steps.”
Some collaboration among government entities has already started around some of the issues Gray plans to tackle. For example, the City of Memphis has pledged $6 million to help expand needs-based preschool. And conversations on how to work together on school facility plans and repairs recently started between Hopson and Sharon Griffin, the superintendent of the state-run Achievement School District. Since county government provides the money to maintain those schools, Gray said he’ll be a part of those discussions, too.
Gray said he plans to spend his first few months on the job listening and creating advisory groups so diverse perspectives can inform the county’s decisions about schools and ideas for collaboration.
“What’s important for someone in my role is to gather all these perspectives and put them in the think tank so we move forward in one unified collaborative movement,” he said.
David Lenoir, who challenged Harris for mayor in August, first conceived of the idea of an education liaison, and the Harris administration further honed the role.