The JFP Interview with JPS Superintendent Dr. Cedrick Gray

Dr. Cedrick Gray, Jr.

Dr. Cedrick Gray, Jr. Photo by Trip Burns.

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Gray believes his experience turning around schools in the Memphis, which has demographics similar to Jackson, will help him lead JPS.

The atmosphere at the Jackson State University e-Center on Aug. 2 was more like a wedding reception than a welcoming for a public school superintendent. Pretty young hostesses and dark-suited ushers with boutonnières pinned to their lapels greeted guests. Chairs were draped in white satin and tied with black bows, and a jazz band played softly until a JROTC color guard escorted the guest of honor, incoming Jackson Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Cedrick Gray, and his family to their table at the front of the room.

Gray, 41, says he was a little embarrassed by all the pomp and circumstance. "I really am I not that kind of person. But at the same time, out of respect for the community, you have to make yourself available," he told the Jackson Free Press.

If the event had the feeling of a nuptials ceremony, it could be that JPS, which had three superintendents in a 12-month-span, was desperate to find a mate. In January 2011, the Jackson Public Schools Board of Trustees declined to renew the contract of then-Superintendent Dr. Lonnie Edwards who had a tumultuous tenure at the helm of the city's school system. Dr. Jayne Sargent, who served as Jackson schools' chief from 1997 to 2002, took over as interim superintendent last July.

After a nationwide search, the board hired Gray in May 2012. Since he started in July, people have gone out of their way to impress Gray even though he has ruffled feathers early on. After security guards asked fans and players to leave a fundraiser scrimmage between Lanier High School basketball greats, Gray caught heat for his decision to put the kibosh on the event. Gray has said that he regrets the way everything went down. Still, local political and civic leaders have been anxious to host Gray. The Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr. Even flew in to introduce Gray to the 4,000-strong JPS workforce at this year's convocation.

Born in Milwaukee, Gray spent his childhood in Memphis. He studied at the University of Memphis, where he received bachelor's and master's degrees, and completed his doctorate at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. He's been a teacher and a principal at two Memphis-area middle schools, first at Craigmont Middle School and at Lester PreK-8 School.

Before joining JPS, Gray headed the Fayette County Schools system, which has about 3,700 students (JPS has nearly 10 times that number, approximately 30,000). In July, the Tennessee Department of Education named Gray's former district exemplary for making significant improvements in student performance.

Gray's wife, Karen, is a Jackson native and Callaway High School graduate. They have a daughter, Peyton, and live in north Jackson.

Recently, Gray spoke with the Jackson Free Press about his expectations—for teachers, students, administrators and, most importantly, himself.

You're a minister, but in the few times I've seen you, you came across as a rather unassuming soft-spoken guy, but you preached at the convocation. Were you just saving up?

Well, what's in you comes out—especially at moments like those. And for me, the most important thing is for people to know who I am. Some of what I've discovered being the new kid on the block—and this is not my first time being the new kid on the block—is the people who are the most critical and judgmental are the one who really don't know you. When they get to know you, a lot of that is curbed.

What kinds of questions have staff asked you about yourself or your plans?

They're most interested in knowing my background. A lot of them were encouraged by the fact that I've been everything from a substitute teacher to a teacher to an assistant principal and a principal and then, of course, district-level administration. And beyond that, where I taught and where I was a school principal. You can relate better to someone who's walked in your shoes. Beyond that, they'd like to know the direction we'd like to go. Our entry document outlines that pretty well. I think everyone is encouraged by the new mantra, the new vision: "Building Stronger Schools Together." That seems to resonate a lot with our JPS family members.

Your entry plan (see sidebar, this page) is quite ambitious. Have all the evaluations taken place, and what have you learned?

The majority of them have. There are formal and informal structures to evaluate, and I've learned a lot about the strengths and challenges that exist within our system. We have a lot of wonderfully dedicated teachers and administrators—and that's the strength. The challenge is the consistency in leadership, which is what we're hoping to provide.

In performing those evaluations, did anything jump out at you as a bigger challenge or strength than you anticipated coming in?

I did a lot of homework before coming in, so I didn't find any huge surprises. We will be taking a closer look at is how we engage our parents as a stakeholder. That directly connects to student achievement. I think we've done a good job of doing outreach to parents, though I think we need to reach a little deeper, a little higher to get them engaged. For me, it's a difference between parent involvement and parent engagement. Engagement says the parent is actively participating in academic achievement and development for the children, which means visit your child's school within in the first 30 days.

Secondly, create a quiet space at home for your child to study for at least an hour. Another part of it is to make sure your child is at school and ready to learn every day.

The last part of it surrounds itself around staying connected to school by reviewing report cards and work that comes home—or if work's not coming home. As a principal, I love to see my parents. I just didn't want to see them after we had already had some sort of negative interaction—a suspension or a tardy notice. I think you should engage before that happens.

You've said several times something to the effect of you don't want people to put the burden on you to be "Mr. Fix It." Are you just trying to keep expectations low?

It's about my background, context for my experience as an educator. I picked up this label in Memphis as a turnaround specialist because I was able to go to a couple of schools and do some turnaround. Because, when you're talking about those things, you're talking about a massive effort that has more than one part to it. It's like a small puzzle, but it has so many different pieces that one person can't do all of that. I think if we depend on one person to do it all, then we sell ourselves short, because what we're doing is not empowering ourselves to be part of the solution. I think that when you join together as a team, then you own the prosperity that comes as a result of it as opposed to giving credit or placing blame on one person.

It's no different from—it's football season; I'm a big football fan...

Who's your team?

Tennessee Titans. So, it's like a good football team. If the superintendent is the coach, the coach doesn't play. He's the one member of the team that doesn't play—he doesn't throw, he doesn't catch, kick or run. The responsibility of the coach is to provide the players with a playbook, show the players the end zone and the sidelines and say, "Let's play." The coach also determines the tone of how you play so if you get down, the coach can rally you up. If you're winning, the coach says, "Let's not get too high, because this is not the Super Bowl, and we still have 15 games to play."

Some head coaches don't call plays. Do you like to be hands-on or do you leave the play-calling to your coordinators?

I'm hands-on during training camp. We call everybody in for training camp, then we have the conversations about what we expect the game to look like, what kinds of plays will work here or there, and then on game day, then you should have had all your preparation. So I'm really hands-on because I'm still a principal at heart. At the same time, if you have an offensive and defensive coordinator, you have to trust them to make the right calls at the right time.

In that sense, how much flexibility do you give principals and the people in the buildings to meet the broad goals that you set?

This is my philosophy: We've hired the principal to be the principal. I'm relying on the principals to know their school cultures and their neighborhoods, and I'm relying on them to make the best decision for their buildings and also be very cognizant to policy and applicable state laws as it relates to running schools. When I was a principal, I appreciated being left alone to do my job. So that's my philosophy. I'm the superintendent; I'm here to support and provide some guidance and some direction as the system shifts, and each principal is given that latitude to be creative and do what they think is best for kids in their buildings.

How will you measure whether those principals are being effective?

I'm working now on a couple of fronts: One, we'll do school walk-through. That's the formative sort of evaluation

How often do you plan to be in the buildings?

I will definitely be in every high school and definitely touch every feeder pattern. Knowing this role (of superintendent), it's difficult to know how much we'll be in buildings but we're working to get into buildings every week. As a matter of fact, we'll be holding our executive cabinet meeting at school buildings and away from (the central) office at least once a month. That is a challenge, in itself, and it pulls at me because like I said: I'm a principal at heart, and I love to be among the kids. It just gives you some sort of energy. So I'm making staff hold me accountable for that.

If you had to identify a pet project, one thing that you really want to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty on the nuts and blots of, what would it be?

Actually, I have three that jump out. First is early-childhood education and, without going into a great amount of detail, we really need to help prepare all the 4-year-olds in this city for kindergarten. The second is K through 12 literacy. It's important that every child knows how to read and is reading at grade level. And the last part is my love. I was a middle-school principal, so I really want to embrace the work we're doing for kids age 10 to 15. That's where my heart is in terms of physical, social and emotional development.

Why is it important to focus on this age group?

There is no secret that we start to lose children at age 10. The misnomer is that dropouts happen in high school. Well, they don't. Dropouts happen as early as third grade. It's a pretty clear indicator that if a child isn't enjoying school by age 10, they start to lose their focus from it. So that's where I think we can put a great deal of emphasis and build some successes for our children and their successes at school.

And I've seen it for myself. I have been the principal of two middle schools, one of which had 100 students in it. I saw every extreme. I saw a child who came to school with little or nothing whose pressures are survival in the neighborhood, and I saw the other extreme: a child who comes to school who's upper-middle class who, for all intents and purposes, would want for nothing, except whose mom and dad expected all As all the time, which is heavy pressure for a child. So I think we win and lose children in that age range.

Entry Plan Highlights

Dr. Cedrick Gray's entry plan focuses on engaging the following three groups (JPS's Board of Trustees & superintendent's staff, Community leaders, Legislative (city & state) members with parents, and school staff.)

How much do you buy into the idea of the school-to-prison pipeline that we hear so much about these days?

Our role as educators is to intervene in the lives of children in positive and special ways and to give them more options than exist in their realities. I guess what I mean is I think about little Cedrick who has to walk along the sidewalk and passes a crack house and a house that's boarded up. I'm thinking about my last middle school, Lester Binghamton, where we had dilapidated buildings in places that a child shouldn't have to see on their way to school. We have to provide those children with more options, because if we don't educate them well and support them well, I'm afraid they may become another statistic, which is what's troubling to me.

The idea of you as a role model for black males—is that a mantle you feel comfortable carrying?

Comfortable or not, I keep thinking about Charles Barkley when he said he wasn't a role model. Later he said you just can't help it. People who see you may want to emulate you. I don't consider myself necessarily a role model. I just consider myself someone who works hard and tries to set a good example and live the life that I think would make my parents proud of me. Admittedly, I have received phone calls that say, "My son looks up to you, and we appreciate what you do," and that's encouraging. But there's also a lot of pressure on that because I'm human—flesh and blood. I need coffee to wake up in the morning just like everybody else. But if someone sees what I do and who I am as something they want to emulate then I'll accept that.

You recommended a book for your staff to read, "Fighting for Urban Schools," by Don McAdams (Teachers College Press, 2000, $21.95), which is about accountability but also has high praise for Rod Paige, George W. Bush's education secretary and one of the architects of No Child Left Behind. Should we read anything into that?

Our school board will be studying that, and that won't be for staff. The book our principals will be reading is "Schools that Change" (Corwin Press, 2007, $41.95) by Lew Smith. This is a volume that I used as I matriculated through school leadership. It talks a little about the three Cs of school—capacity, conversation and context—and how we make decisions in our buildings is based on that.

As far as Don McAdams' book is concerned, I wanted to look at school governance from several different ways, so it's not necessarily the philosophy of Rod Paige and No Child Left Behind that we'll be studying, but we'll be studying several perspectives. For example: In Fayette County when I was there, we used (the film) "Waiting for Superman" as our launching pad at a school-board retreat. That didn't necessarily say we were in favor of one thing or the other, but it evoked some conversation and evoked a second look at some things and how we do them.

The White House has been giving states flexibility with some of the provisions of NCLB. Do you feel you have enough flexibility to accomplish what needs to be done at JPS?

I think the time has come for us to start thinking about schools in a different light. We are preparing students for jobs that have not been invented, yet, so we have to prepare students differently. And I believe we will have the flexibility.

Jackson Public Schools at a Glance

Enrollment: 30,600

Teachers: 2,208

Total employees: 4,500

Budget: $199 million

Students in poverty:

82 percent

District accreditation status: Probation

Total Schools: 61

Elementary Schools: 39

Middle Schools: 12

High Schools: 8

Special Schools: 2

Source: Mississippi Department of Education, 2010-2011

The forces that control our Legislature are determined to introduce charter schools to Mississippi. Can you envision a world where Jackson Public Schools and charters co-exist?

My emphasis is on creating a quality educational environment for all our children. That's our reality now. When that reality changes, then we'll have more conversation about charter schools and what that looks. Right now, my focus is how to build stronger schools as they exist and how we work together to do that.

At the convocation, Rev. Jesse Jackson told staffers to not be ashamed or run away from the fact that this is a black district, and it's a district where there's poverty but he also cautioned against teaching down to our kids. Given the challenges JPS kids face, how do you keep expectations high?

I didn't know this, but I know it now: When I was growing up, we were poor. I didn't know it because everybody was in the same situation. That didn't change the expectations of my parents and my grandparents to do better and be better.

Children aren't born with a failure mentality. They feel like they can rule the world. You can tell because they aren't afraid of anything. They jump right off the side of the pool into the deep end. I think inherently all teachers come into the profession with a desire to save the world and the expectation is for that to continue.

I like movies, and I find messages in them. One of them is "The Wiz." There's a scene where Dorothy flips the fire alarm and melts the Wicked Witch, and the servants who've been working under the Wicked Witch emerge from this costume they were in, and start to rejoice. So the analogy it paints is: If we've been under some form of oppression, at some point we can return to the way we were. So if we have not been meeting high expectations, it's time for us to get back to that.

How do you want people to evaluate you, and how do you evaluate yourself?

If things are better than they were, then I think we're making progress. Better could mean 1 percent, or better could mean 5 percent. Better could mean I didn't want to come to work, and now I do. Better could mean a child who missed 20 days of school last year who only misses 15 days this year—something that's just a little better.

It doesn't mean there won't be very difficult decisions to make or mistakes along the way. That doesn't mean it's going to be flawless. It does mean that were going to work to make it a little better. And if it's better, then I think it means we've done something.

How much time will you give yourself?

We want to be better a year from now than we are now. Now there are different ways of measuring that and some things—like academic achievement, graduate rate, dropout rates—take a little more time. But I'm really talking about morale, culture and climate, responsiveness to our parents and how central office responds to our schools. So if that starts to change and becomes a little better than it was, that's how I evaluate myself.

You mentioned your reputation as a turnaround specialists. Turnaround guys typically come in, do a job—fix it or they don't—and they move on.

Jackson feels like home, and I'd like to be here for as long as Jackson will have me, and along the way, we work to make it better than when we arrived, and that's the extent of it. You're right: You can't predict the future. Jackson is a wonderful place to live and raise a family.

Comment or email R.L. Nave at rlnave@jacksonfreepress.com

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