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Presenting a 90-day plan, Memphis’ interim superintendent says he won’t ‘sit behind a podium’

Interim superintendent Joris Ray leading his first Shelby County Schools board meeting.
Interim superintendent Joris Ray leading his first Shelby County Schools board meeting.
Shelby County Schools

During his first meeting as interim superintendent, Joris Ray greeted the audience with “good evening.” Not accustomed to being directly addressed during the meetings, the crowd offered a weak echo. So, Ray offered the greeting again as he came out of his seat and walked past several board members to be closer to the audience.

“Guys, I can’t sit behind a podium and present. It’s not my style,” said Ray.

If his first week is any indication, the interim leader of Tennessee’s largest district has no plans to simply keep Shelby County Schools afloat while the school board searches for a new superintendent.

His predecessor, Dorsey Hopson, led the district to make academic gains that have garnered praise from the state as an example of effective school turnaround. Ray is hoping he will be the one to take the district to the next level, and is wasting no time putting initiatives into place he thinks will make that happen.

Students from John P. Freeman K-8 read the seven tenets of Ray’s 90-day plan.
Students from John P. Freeman K-8 read the seven tenets of Ray’s 90-day plan.
Shelby County Schools

He started by assigning seven students from his alma mater, John P. Freeman K-8, to help him present his 90-day plan for the district during Tuesday’s board meeting.

Ray, a career Memphis educator known as a “fixer” in the district, has already committed to hire assistants for second-grade teachers, train all staff on how to spot childhood trauma, and add English and math coaches at high schools.

That’s on top of implementing a plan introduced last week by another district leader to test all first-graders for gifted education, and add 11 schools to the district’s school improvement program while weaning 13 others off it.

He also set a cooperative tone with the district’s teacher unions on his first day, a union leader said, which will be important as negotiations on a new agreement begin next month.

Stephanie Love, the school board member who nominated Ray to be interim superintendent, said she hopes he will train other district leaders to be responsive to the community.

“He was pretty much hands on with all things dealing with our schools… He has been very instrumental as a negotiator between parents and school officials,” said Love.

His most immediate community negotiation will come as Ray gathers input on a plan left by his predecessor to consolidate 28 aging buildings into 10 new ones.

“Education is a people-centered business,” observed Charlotte Smith, a retired teacher and Woodstock neighborhood advocate. She frequently attends school board meetings and has noticed Ray is usually the go-to staff member when board members have questions for staff.

“He’s been in the trenches and he came up the ladder. So, he knows education,” she said.

Ray’s initiatives will be included in the district’s proposed budget, which will be presented in the coming months.

“We have an opportunity to do something great,” Ray said at Tuesday’s meeting. “We believe in our students, we believe in our parents, we believe in our principals. And most of all, we believe in our teachers, who are trusted with our most precious resource every day — and that’s the students of Shelby County Schools.”

Board Chairwoman Shante Avant, has said she expects the new superintendent to be in place by August. Otherwise, the board may extend the search into 2020. The school board has not set a search process since Dorsey Hopson announced his resignation two months ago.

Read Ray’s full 90-day plan below:

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