Returning to his office after visiting Brewster Elementary School, where reality was being stretched to account for unexpected death of a 37-year-old teacher, Interim Shelby County Schools Supt. Joris Ray had several people waiting for him, including the associate publisher/executive editor of The New Tri-State Defender.
Managing a schedule filled at the outset and subject to change comes with the territory of superintendent, even when the title is preceded with “interim.” At SCS, Ray is the person in charge – for now – since the recent departure of Dorsey Hopson.
“I’m focused on the work. I’m focused on the children of this school district,” Ray said. I’m for moving forward. What the board decides, they decide; but as of now it’s about the children. It’s about moving the academic needle.”
So, does he want the job full time?
“I just want to remain focused on the seven next steps to Destination 2025 and really galvanize our teachers, principals…”
Asked to envision himself at a Town Hall meeting, Ray fielded an assortment of questions over the next several minutes.
TSD: What is the practical way that you envision to involve the community and business in SCS, other than when there is a call for more financing?
Ray: I believe in actively engaging the community. … It’s the right thing to do, to listen. …I want to be an ear, to get feedback; and before something affects a community, I want to listen first before I bring any major proposal.
TSD: Does the same hold true for the business side of that question?
Ray: The same holds true. …I’ve met over the last few weeks many corporate leaders, business leaders. …I’ve been out listening to the concerns they have about the workforce that transitions out of Shelby County Schools. And the need that they have for a quality student when it comes to hiring, when it comes to just being a productive citizen.
TSD: Is there a firm future for reviving vocational education?
Ray: Yes. …We did a re-launch of CCTE (college career technology education) and we’re focused on getting students excited about CCTE. …We prioritized close to $8 million. …Often times as educators we have different courses and classes that students want to take. But now what we are going towards is having industry certification. When students leave us they leave with a certification in order to get high-wage employment.
For instance, last year when students graduated it was maybe close to 200 certifications … overall. Now this year we’ll have over 1,000. …(W)hat we are doing is getting in the ninth grade a career focus and a career path that by the time they leave us, they leave with not only a high school diploma, but (also) an industry certification that they can go on and get gainful employment, if they choose. …
We know all students are not going to college, but we want to prepare you to go to college. However, if you choose to go to work, you will have that industry certification in your hand and you can move forward. …
‘Academic equity in action’
Ray was asked about concerns that some express about the readiness of SCS students for college upon graduation. That took him to the No. 1 point in his plan (the seven next steps toward Destination 2025), which he called “academic equity in action.”
“We particularly talk about high schools…the rigor in high schools. …Our goal is to have 80 percent of our students graduate in four years. Right now we are at 79.4 percent. We are on track to meet our goal.”
One indicator of college readiness is scoring 21 on the ACT, he said.
“Only 23 percent of our students score a 21 on the ACT. So what we’ve done in the academic equity in action plan is to really concentrate on high schools to look at it through CCTE, through looking at our advanced placement courses. We want to have rigor but it also needs to be relevant to the students’ learning. …We started a new student affairs department to really hone in on, ‘Where are the gaps?’”
While the goal is to see all students succeed, there is an effort to hone in on African-American males.
“We’re looking at their attendance rates, suspension rates and how they are going through the system and if they are actually achieving,” said Ray.
“That’s going to take support from the entire community; calling on both mayors, the police chief and also the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department. Let’s figure it out and let’s work together; because if you see what is going on in our community, schools are a microcosm of the community.
“If we can all join forces and think through some of the issues that we all are having together…because it’s the same children, I feel Shelby County would be a better place.”
‘Social and emotional learning’
Ray then was presented with this scenario: Assertions that in-school fights are under-reported and that many parents come with threatening attitudes that affect the ability of school personnel to do their jobs.
That took Ray to the No. 2 point on his seven-point plan – “social and emotional learning.”
“…What you named are symptoms,” he said. “You have to really deal with the root cause. That’s why we’re investing in social workers…psychologists and more guidance counselors. But under-representation? I would say that we report.
“I feel strong about our departments that are leading that work – that’s student equity and enrollment and discipline. You must report to the state…”
Doubling down on fighting being a symptom, Ray said, “Once you really unpack that, they are angry at somebody at home. They are angry about a cousin being shot down the street. And they bring those things back into our schools.
“So you have to have a safety net and a support system for students. When they enter into our doors you have to love them. You have to figure out, ‘Where is the hurt?’ I think out staff, and our teachers especially, do a remarkable job.”
TSD: So where do you go to learn to help students with hurt?
Ray: …In this school district everybody will receive ACES training…(adverse childhood experience training) to learn about childhood trauma. It’s going to start with our school board, it’s going to cascade down to our cabinet and into the classrooms. It’s so important.
Often times a child will come in with their head down…and there used to be a time when a teacher would say, “Why you got your head down? Get up. You’re here to learn.” What we’re trying to do is build relationships with students and figure out what’s going on.
And what you will find out is, “I had to stay up all night with my brother and sister.” Or what you’ll find out is, “You know, I was scared to go to sleep because they were shooting in my neighborhood.”
We try to figure out the root cause and deal with the root cause of student issues.
Yes, there is “suffocating poverty,” said Ray.
“Poverty is one thing, but the support system is another. You may not have much money. I didn’t grow up with much. But I was fortunate to have wonderful parents; a mother and father that supported me. And caring brothers and sisters, too, that were positive examples.”
TSD: As a former educator, what would you do differently to insure that our children receive a quality education?
Ray: Not former, I am an educator. I am an academician. …I think Supt. Hopson did a remarkable job for being a non-educator. One thing I want to do – and will do – is really engage teachers on the front end. Listen to our teachers to get buy-in before moving forward with initiatives.
Another thing is just building and setting the culture and climate for learning. That is so important. We have to support our teachers…and working collaboratively with both teacher unions. The first meeting I had, as officially being the superintendent, I met with both teachers’ unions to talk about, “Hey, we are on the same team. We both want what is best for our teachers in Shelby County.”…
We talked about some issues and we found out that we were pretty much on the same page with moving forward with supporting our teachers. Our teachers are on the frontline and they give of themselves every day.
That took Ray back to where he had just come before the interview.
“I just left Brewster Elementary. The teachers are hurting themselves with the passing of a colleague.
“But they know the importance of denying themselves and grieving in front of students to ensure that education continues, to ensure that students remain positive, to ensure that our students know that, ‘It’s going to be OK…. It’s going to be alright.’”
(The full interview with Interim Supt. Joris Ray will be featured this Sunday, Feb. 3 from 5 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. on “Where Do We Go From Here?” on TSDRadio on WLOK. That show then will be available as at podcast on TSDMemphis.com next Tuesday, Feb. 5.)