With Supt. Dr. Joris Ray on administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation, Memphis-Shelby County Schools is being guided by two assistant superintendents: Dr. Angela Whitelaw (Academics) and Dr. John Barker (Operations).
TSD education columnist Curtis Weathers

I’ve been fretting all summer about the start of this school year. With district Supt. Dr. Joris Ray under investigation and on administrative leave, and so many other distractions, my hope for this school year has been at its lowest point ever.

I recently had an opportunity, however, to interview the two assistant superintendents now in charge of leading our school system in Dr. Ray’s absence, Dr. John Barker (Operations) and Dr. Angela Whitelaw (Academics).

We sat for over an hour discussing issues related to the start of this school year and their plans to support our children and improve academic achievement. They were not allowed to comment on topics related to Dr. Ray and his situation.

Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised by the incredible chemistry between the two of them during the interview.  They seem to have great respect for each other and based on everything I have now seen and heard, they have an excellent working relationship.

I had a laundry list of questions to ask, and although we did not get to all of them during the interview, their team made sure I received a written response to the remaining questions a few days later.

We started by discussing the morale of teachers, administrators, and staff as they enter the new school year.  They both are encouraged by what they’ve seen thus far but are in no way disillusioned. They know that this school year will be challenging, and they are ready and willing to do whatever it takes to stay focused and keep morale pointed in the right direction.

They both have a faith-driven approach to their jobs.  They actually attend each other’s church for worship services from time to time and genuinely value that aspect of their relationship.

The workload has increased exponentially for both of them, “but we’re trying very hard to keep our eye on the ball,” says Dr. Whitelaw.

They are in constant communication with each other.  They conference first thing in the morning, and touch base with each other frequently during the course of the day and into the evenings.  Both believe firmly that “if you give energy, you get energy in return.”

The two of them were very clear about their plans for improving student achievement.  While district TCAP numbers are indeed trending up, in no way were they satisfied with last year’s results.

Students made gains in every grade and nearly every subject on the 2021-22 TCAP exam. State data shows that the district’s investment in tutoring, professional development, and summer, fall, and spring learning academies led to the strongest high school English scores in five years and near double-digit gains in elementary reading and elementary math.

“But we’re not satisfied with the fact that 80 percent of our students are still struggling,” said Dr. Barker.

According to Dr. Whitelaw, the district will focus on three key initiatives going forward:

First, strengthening literacy in all grade levels, but particularly grades K – 2nd grade.

Second, retaining, recruiting, and developing teachers. They want to make certain that they have the most talented and most qualified teachers in front of our children.

And lastly, they want to provide students with an expanded menu of academic choices along with rigorous classroom instruction.

One of their major concerns as we start the school year is the number of teacher positions that still need to be filled.  The district has 180 plus positions still vacant.  The vacancies are down considerably from last year, but is nevertheless a great concern.  They are hoping to minimize last-minute resignations and retirements.  But they have plans in place to make sure all classrooms are covered going forward.

Overall, both Superintendents were in great spirits and excited about this school year.

After the interview, I must admit, I felt much better about the start of this school year and the future of our school system going forward.

Both Dr. Barker and Dr. Whitelaw are very smart and capable people.

In fact, if Dr. Joris Ray cannot return to his post as superintendent, we have an opportunity to introduce a new leadership paradigm here in Memphis Shelby County Schools and maybe in K-12 public education in general.

Dr. Penny Schwinn (left), Tennessee’s education commissioner, visited the Memphis Shelby County Schools district on Monday, the first day of classes for the new year. On this stop, she was accompanied by Dr. John Barker and Dr. Angela Whitelaw (second from right). Also pictured is MSCS Board Chair Michelle McKissack (right). (Photo: Twitter)

If and when the time comes, I suggest we promote our two assistant superintendents to the permanent role of co-superintendents.

We have two very talented and qualified individuals who seem ready, willing, and more than capable of leading this school system, as a team. They appear to work together extremely well and promoting them to co-superintendents could save us the agony and stress of a national search for Superintendent Ray’s replacement.

While it may be a bit unusual to have two co-superintendents running a school system this size, this may be an excellent opportunity to introduce a new leadership paradigm to the public education landscape.

This type of leadership model may not be suitable for every school system in America; we may very well be the exception.

But I firmly believe that if anyone can make such an approach work, these two can.

It’s worth considering.

Nevertheless, we’re in good hands, for now.

(Follow me on Twitter @curtisweathers. Email me at [email protected].)