Memphis-Shelby County Schools interim Superintendent Toni Williams on Tuesday (March 21) gave her 2023 State of The District address.
It was her first, and I must admit, I was impressed. She did an outstanding job.
Just watching Superintendent Williams over the past few months, she seems to be a true personification of one of her favorite phrases, “Authentic Leadership.”
And based on everything I’ve heard and seen, she really does practice the art of “leading by listening.”
In terms of moving the district forward, she touched on a number of areas in her remarks.
The path forward in academics, she said, is focusing on literacy, attendance, pre-K expansion, extended learning, improved support for English language learners, the district’s CCTE programs, and workforce development.
I want to reflect on four areas from that list that really caught my attention during her presentation: literacy, the CCTE program, attendance (truancy) issues, and teacher support.
The superintendent started her address first by celebrating last year’s academic improvement. The district achieved a Level 5 performance rating and has enrolled 3,500 more students in advanced-level courses this year than the previous year.
While we still need to improve performance overall, we are indeed, according to the numbers, “trending” in the right direction.
At the top of her list of concerns is the district’s literacy rate among elementary students, especially among district third graders.
Tennessee’s third-grade literacy law passed in 2021, will be in full effect this school year. It requires school districts to hold back third graders who do not pass the Tennessee Ready Reading Test.
According to state data, nearly two-thirds of third graders in the state failed the test last year. In Memphis-Shelby County Schools, only 23 percent of third graders completed the last school year reading on grade level.
Reading proficiently by the end of third grade is a crucial benchmark in a child’s educational development.
The struggles that come with poor literacy are far reaching, putting strains on both the individual and the entire community. The ability to read and write at a third-grade level eventually turns into a quality-of-life issue that will ultimately affect hundreds of thousands of people in our community.
There are efforts underway to get Tennessee legislators to amend the new law. But in the meantime, while the district is doing much to address this issue, Superintendent Williams made it clear, “we need a lot of help” in this area.
I was happy to see a large portion of the superintendent’s address promoting the district’s College Careers and Technical Education (CCTE) program. It is a very important program that does not get enough attention.
Students who go through the district’s CCTE programs can earn associate degrees while in high school and get high-paying jobs shortly after graduating in many of the career fields they are working in.
According to Superintendent Williams, the district’s CCTE program’s goal is to prepare students not just to graduate but to step into real jobs, right out of high school, that pay good wages.
Memphis is the most dangerous city in the United States of America. With a population of just over six hundred thousand, Memphis has a crime rate that is 237 percent higher than the national average, and juvenile crime, in particular, is spiraling out of control.
Many believe the large increase in juvenile crime is partly driven by the large number of teens absent from school without supervision.
The district is concerned with chronic absenteeism and the high truancy rate in our schools and is putting in place some innovative procedures and technologies that will help address problems before they become unmanageable.
The superintendent’s plans to provide much-needed support to teachers was good news to many. The district plans to invest an additional $27.3 million in teacher salaries.
This is part of a plan to address a teacher shortage that is impacting not only Memphis-Shelby County Schools, but school districts across the nation.
The shortages are fueled by a number of factors. Low pay is just one of them.
Other reasons include low morale, lack of student discipline, mounting political and academic pressures (i.e., CRT), as well as health and safety concerns.
The superintendent is in discussions with teacher leaders about decreasing teacher workloads and creating a more vibrant culture of celebration in the district that might help enhance teacher retention.
And congratulations to all of the Teachers, Principals, and Supervisors of the Year nominees, who were recognized during the presentation.
Your great work is inspiring and impacting so many people in so many ways. Keep up the great work.
The superintendent ended her remarks with this inspiring quote, “If we unite, no matter the endeavors, we will be Triumphant Together!”
Good Job, Superintendent Williams.
(Follow me, TSD’s education columnist, on Twitter @curtisweathers. Email me at [email protected].)