JACKSON Fights in schools, and a mother on the Forest Hill campus with a gun. In a hot, packed auditorium, parents and teachers fiercely arguing with Jackson Public Schools administration, demanding change and alleging incompetence from district leadership. And now, out of compliance with 22 out of 32 of the state's accreditation standards, the threat of probation looming overhead pending an Aug. 16 hearing.
All of this reflects periods of high drama and public criticism of Jackson Public Schools' administration, especially superintendent Dr. Cedrick Gray this school year—and despite it all, he just received a national award naming him national superintendent of the year.
Serving nearly 4,000 employees and more than 28,000 students, 78 percent of whom receive free or reduced lunch in the state's largest city, Jackson Public Schools often faces loud internal and external criticism from those who lament the district's perceived failures on behalf of its students. But the largest urban school district in the state maintains it is doing its best, and Gray, a softspoken Milwaukee, Wis., native rich in both bowties and undented enthusiasm, has endorsed no small number of programs intended to enrich the academic lives of scholars since his appointment to the position in 2012.
So how, with so much drama ahead—and behind—did the superintendent get a national award?
"This award doesn't reflect a snapshot in time," Gray said in an interview with the Jackson Free Press.
"It is a review of a body of work. If you take a look at the time we've been here, that body of work has shown great success and great gains in lots of areas, both academic and operational."
Still, some teachers working in the district have tired of the turbulence. A 2016 BOTEC research team, relying on extensive interviews with JPS teachers, reported educator dissatisfaction with discipline procedures they felt district administration had softened.
At a Forest Hill High School community meeting this year, after a parent brought a gun to campus after a string of student fights, girls' basketball coach Lakia Westerfield directed her frustration to Gray and other district officials.
"With all these degrees, bow ties and ties and suits, we can't find a solution?" Westerfield asked.
Gray acknowledges that JPS must climb uphill to over its problems. "Our scholars have the challenges that exist in every urban area in our country," he told the Jackson Free Press last week. "When you can lead in that school environment, there is a sense of accomplishment among us as superintendents. Anybody can lead in good times, but when you can lead the ship through stormy waters—we've come out on the other side of that numerous times in our district."
The superintendent, who formerly worked as lead educator in Tennessee's Fayette County Schools system, also says he views building community among JPS employees as one of his main focuses this school year. He says he hopes to instill a sense of urgency in every employee, and to remind them that they are all part of a focused JPS family.
"We have to make sure that everyone understands that we're all in this together," he said. "We've got to focus 100 percent on the scholars every single day."
Exploiting the Bad Things
Like the start of any challenging relationship, the one between Dr. Cedrick Gray and Jackson Public Schools came with serious baggage.
When Gray took the reins of leadership for the district in 2012, the school board operated with interim JPS superintendent Dr. Jayne Sargent after voting not to renew the contract of the former superintendent, Dr. Lonnie Edwards.
Edwards' time as superintendent also saw its fair share of controversy. In 2010, MDE found that JPS violated federal law during the 2009-2010 school year by not providing adequate services, like therapy and counseling, to students with behavioral and emotional disorders.
The Mississippi Youth Justice Project alleged in a suit against the district that JPS shipped those children to the district's alternative school where some were handcuffed to their desks for hours for behavior infractions.
In danger of losing its accreditation status, the district was on probation until the threat was lifted in 2014, the second year of Gray's tenure. Now, the district again faces the possibility of probation, with a state audit claiming that JPS has violated 22 out of 32 accreditation standards, including process Standard 22, which cites the Capital City Alternative School for not providing appropriate services to students with IEPs.
"It's easy to lead in a place free of challenges, but when you're leading a school district that serves the scholars we serve that don't have the benefit of early childhood education, all of them don't have the benefit of summers off at a summer resort," Gray told the Jackson Free Press in an interview last week.
"Our scholars face the same challenges that you see in urban school districts around the country," he said. "It's not a Morgan Freeman movie taking place in our buildings. The issue we get in Jackson is the same thing happens in other districts, even in our surrounding area, and no one says anything about it. We're the only ones telling on ourselves, as if we want to exploit the bad things."
Gray also spoke to the fact that his urban district, like so many others around the country, is not unique in its struggle.
"JPS struggles more than any other district in the state with penetrating the atmosphere with the great news as opposed to the other," Gray said. "I talk to superintendents across the country, from Compton to Charlotte. We have the same issues. We have fights on buses, kids coming late to school, we have all of these things that go on. We hurt ourselves. We shoot ourselves in the foot here in Jackson because for some reason or another, we just want to talk bad about JPS."
Urban districts are usually victim to a complex web of societal factors that limit their success-. The Response to Intervention, or RTI Action Network, a program focused on data-driven approaches to improving student learning, writes: "urban school districts are frequently marked by higher concentrations of poverty, greater racial and ethnic diversity, larger concentrations of immigrant populations and linguistic diversity, and more frequent rates of student mobility."
But, as RTI points out, diversity is not the issue, so much as it is indicative of a wide range of intersecting inequalities, like the vestiges of systemic racism and class differences plaguing the city, county or state in which the district is located.
These factors affect the school districts on every level-, including how likely it is that students will be able to afford lunch. The wealth of the district also affects how likely it is the district can find and retain highly qualified employees to live nearby and work.
Despite overarching systemic issues, the district sees academic success, and is home to competitive scholars, top-ranked schools and other honors, but Gray is steadfast the entire district will one day be an "A" one. He says the biggest help to him as a superintendent would be constructive, not destructive criticism from the public. "I don't know a diplomatic way of putting it. But if you're not going to help, don't hurt," Gray said. "Don't say things about the district and you're not fully informed about that which you're talking. If you haven't been in one of schools, visited and walked through one of our buildings, don't talk about what you don't understand. "
Sierra Mannie is an education reporting fellow with the Jackson Free Press and The Hechinger Report. Email her at [email protected].
Read more stories on Jackson Public Schools at jfp.ms/jps.