MEMPHIS, Tenn. — As Memphis-Shelby County Schools leaders get back into the swing of the new school year, they are doing so without Superintendent Dr. Joris Ray, who is on paid leave during an outside investigation into whether he violated district policy.
ABC24’s Richard Ransom went one-on-one with the two Deputy Superintendents - Dr. Angela Whitelaw and Dr. John Barker – who are sharing superintendent duties about what parents and students should expect during the next school year.
"It really is going to take all of us working together to make this work because together we must believe, together we will achieve and together we are reimagining 901,” they said.
From cheers to fist bumps, it’s hard to question their enthusiasm or their dedication.
Doctors Whitelaw and Barker are working very long days as the new school year gets underway.
"We meet every day. We meet at 7:30 in the morning and we also meet every afternoon at 6:30 just to ensure that we are always connected and we're making decisions together as a team,” said Dr. Whitelaw.
“I think what we have is an opportunity at this moment in time and it's an opportunity to lead,” said Dr. Barker.
Richard caught up with them at a teacher in-service day at Whitehaven High School the week before classes began.
Despite the challenges, they feel the district is ready to go as it starts its 155th year.
"Our opportunity, especially this year, is get people back into the flow of schooling because that's been a real challenge over the past couple of years,” said Dr. Barker.
They're encouraged by TCAP scores released over the summer which show literacy scores, for example, jumping from 14% to 22%.
But that's a glass half-full perspective. The glass half empty perspective would be, depending on the subject, about 80% of the student body can't perform at their grade level.
"So, Richard, I think that is a fair question. And I think what we're seeing is we're encouraged but not satisfied,” said Dr. Whitelaw.
She said she remains confident the district can also move scores for the four out of five kids who aren't at grade level.
"It is fair to say that again we have always and still continue to struggle with literacy. But what's changing? There are a couple of things changing. That we are focusing all of our teachers around the science of reading. That's one. Two. What's changing is we are aligning this working - meaning that we're aligning from curriculum instruction to professional learning to what's happening in schools,” she said.
They say the district is also engaging with parents more, changing summer school to include and engage thousands more students in learning year-round, and creating more supervision at the central office of student and teacher performance.
With Dr. Ray on leave, Whitelaw and Barker are taking on more responsibilities. She's adding communications to her responsibilities as deputy superintendent of academics. He's adding finances to his duties as deputy superintendent of operations.
"Is it hard? Yes. But can we lead beyond distractions? Yes,” said Dr. Whitelaw.
"The Board's business is the Board's business and the Administration's business is the Administration's business and what we've got is an opportunity to open schools strong for the best school year ever,” said Dr. Barker.
With concerns about school violence and shootings, Richard also asked about that $5.5 million the district is spending to beef-up security.
Dr. Barker said there are some measures being taken he can't talk about, but most of the money will be spent installing cables and wiring to add more security cameras on school campuses.