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Amid MSCS’ national superintendent search, some in Whitehaven push for a local candidate

Supporters of Whitehaven High Principal Vincent Hunter sing his praises at community meeting

Around 60 people gathered at a Whitehaven church for a conversation on MSCS’ superintendent search. Some said they want the new person to have Memphis roots.

Beverly Davis, (second from right) listens to Whitehaven speakers’ views on the qualities they want in the next MSCS superintendent. Davis serves on the school board’s community search advisory committee.

Tonyaa Weathersbee / Chalkbeat

Beverly Davis, president of the Whitehaven Empowerment Zone PTSO, believes the next superintendent of Memphis-Shelby County Schools should possess one main asset: Bluff City roots.

Davis, who is also a member of the MSCS board’s superintendent search advisory committee, addressed a group of about 60 who gathered at Healing Cathedral Christian Church in Whitehaven Wednesday to share their thoughts on who should succeed Joris Ray.

Davis plans to share that community feedback with MSCS board members, who have launched a national search for Ray’s replacement and hope to find one by April.

“We have educators here. Our people are just as educated as the person in the next state or the next country,” Davis told the crowd, many of whom were educators or affiliated with community organizations. “Me, I want homegrown. And the reason I want homegrown is because homegrown cares.

“Homegrown is not going to take that money and in the next year or two, (they’re) gone.”

Ray, a longtime district employee, quit as superintendent in August amid an investigation of claims that he abused his power and violated district policies by engaging in adulterous affairs with employees he supervised. The board approved a severance package equivalent to about $480,000, and closed the investigation without issuing any findings.

When Ray was appointed in 2019, some community groups criticized the board’s decision to abandon a national search and choose a candidate within the district.

Others at the Healing Cathedral meeting also said they’d like to see a local person in the job, and they had a name in mind: Whitehaven High School Principal Vincent Hunter.

Hunter helped build the Whitehaven Empowerment Zone, which was founded in 2016 as an initiative to boost student achievement by focusing on neighborhood schools that feed into Whitehaven High, and to shield them from state takeovers. 

But MSCS eliminated funding for Hunter’s duties as director of the program in June. That move, among others, fueled demands by Davis and others for Ray and several school board members to resign.

Marqui Fifer, principal of Robert R. Church Elementary, said Hunter is the model for the kind of superintendent he wants the board to hire.

“What we’re looking for is a superintendent who understands that just because you’re in the central office doesn’t always make you right, because we have a lot of talent within our zones, and within our schools, and sometimes we just want to be heard,” Fifer said.

“So if you’re asking me, myself, what we’re looking for, what we’re looking for is a Dr. Hunter,” he said.

Darla D. Young-Berry, principal of Havenview Middle STEAM Optional School and a Hunter supporter, said the Whitehaven neighborhood has a lot at stake in the superintendent search, noting the growth of charter schools in the area. 

Many of the students who attend them and return to traditional public schools become frustrated when they learn they are failing when they were passing at the charter schools, she said.

That frustration leads some of them to act out criminally, Young-Berry said.

“That’s a big problem,” she said, “because it’s my middle schoolers who go out here and rob and steal because they don’t understand” why they’re failing school.

“If we don’t pick the right superintendent, Whitehaven won’t exist anymore,” she said.

Hunter, who also attended the meeting, said the praise he received made him feel valued.

The next superintendent should make teachers, staff and administrators feel the same way, he said, in addition to having a track record of sustained success.

“Hopefully, we’ll get that this time, because we’re at the point in Memphis education where, if 80% of our kids still aren’t reading (at) grade level, we won’t have a workforce, and Fortune 500 companies won’t come here,” Hunter said.

Hazel Moore, a beautician who is also known as “the mayor” of Whitehaven, also praised Hunter, especially his stance on boosting skilled trades.

“When I saw the heart of Dr. Hunter at Whitehaven, I said this is the place to be. He’s concerned, and he cares about the children,” Moore said.

Want an opportunity to offer your input on the search for the next superintendent? Here’s the district’s schedule of public meetings:

  • Dec. 8, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at Snowden School, hosted by school board members for Districts 1-3.
  • Dec. 15, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at Southwind High School, hosted by board members from Districts 4-6.
  • Jan. 12, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at Parkway Village Elementary School, hosted by board members from Districts 7-9.
  • Jan. 21, from noon to 2 p.m. at the district offices.

Clarification: This story has been updated to make clear that it was community members, not Davis, suggesting Vincent Hunter as a superintendent candidate.

Tonyaa Weathersbee is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Connect with Tonyaa at tweathersbee@chalkbeat.org.

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