Jermall D. Wright, one of two finalists for the position of Little Rock School District superintendent, says he is a people person who focuses on students’ literacy, numeracy, and social and emotional skills – from their youngest age.
Wright is the nearly three-year superintendent of the Mississippi Achievement School District — a state-created combination of two poorly performing adjacent school systems, Yazoo City and Humphreys County.
Now Wright, 45, a recent candidate for superintendent in New Orleans, says he would like to be the chief executive of the 21,000-student Little Rock system that has the resources to transform schools and districts. .
“Because it’s the capital, there are so many partnerships and organizations that have a vested interest in seeing the school district succeed,” Wright said in a recent interview.
“I have read about the focus on economic development within the Mayor’s Office, the Chamber of Commerce, Business and Industry – all of which are trying to attract business to the area. You have a multitude of partnerships with people who donate time, money and resources When I just look at the number of volunteer hours in schools in the district, it’s mind-boggling.
Wright will be in Little Rock on Monday for a second interview with the Little Rock School Board as it seeks a successor to Mike Poore, who will retire in June after leading the district for six years.
This evening of interviews and dinner will be preceded by a morning visit to three schools and meetings with district employees, parents and municipal and commercial representatives.
Members of the public who wish to meet Wright can do so at a community forum at 4:15 p.m. Monday at the school district administration building, 810 W. Markham St.
Wright is from Jacksonville, Florida, and a father of three children between the ages of 16 and 20. His interest in teaching dates back to his childhood, he said, when he helped his mother teach Sunday school and set up a classroom in his family’s backyard. .
He began his career with a decade of work at a church-affiliated Christian academy in his hometown.
It was a state bond-funded academy where the majority of students came from low-income families, Wright said.
His transition to public education – in Jacksonville; Washington D.C.; Denver; Philadelphia Cream; Birmingham, Alabama; and now the city of Yazoo and Humphreys County, Mississippi – have thrived on a career of improving student outcomes at the school and district levels. This included raising what were often F-level schools to better standards.
In his current role managing two districts taken over by the state, Wright reports to the Mississippi Board of Education and the state school superintendent.
Mississippi Public School principal Carey Wright praised Jermall Wright’s work in an email response to questions.
“As leader of the Achievement School District, Dr. Wright worked quickly to restore district accreditation, remove identified schools from the state’s full support list, and dramatically increase graduation rates,” wrote the head of the state school. “At the same time, he rebuilt and managed a complex set of financial, technological and human resource systems in two formerly separate school districts.
“Dr. Wright is an educationally sound systems leader who has helped improve student outcomes under challenging conditions,” continued Carey Wright. “He continues to perform at the highest level while guiding his district in improving opportunities and outcomes for his students.”
There is no locally elected board in the Mississippi Achievement School District and there will be none until the district achieves a state-enforced C grade or better for five years. But, due to the covid-19 pandemic, Jermall Wright said, the scoring component of the accountability system has been suspended for the past two years.
The idea of working with a school board is hugely appealing, said Jermall Wright, calling the Little Rock board “extremely motivated” to succeed.
“I’m looking forward to working with this group of people because we have a lot in common in what we want to see happen,” he said.
“I know the tensions that sometimes exist between superintendents and a board, but I’ve also had the opportunity to witness wonderful relationships between superintendents and boards,” Wright said.
“For me, there have been many times during the pandemic where I wish I had a board to talk to. Boards are in charge of policy and decision-making. I was left alone to make decisions about masking and in-person learning, all that.
“I had no cover,” he laughed. “It was just me.”
Wright said he brings to Little Rock his ability to unite people around purpose and his experience in a variety of rural, suburban and urban districts using educational solutions “based on evidence, diversity, equity and inclusion”.
“I have a lot of areas to improve, but one of my strengths is that I work well with a wide variety of people – people of different philosophical and political beliefs, different races – people from everywhere.”
He recognized the division that exists in the nation.
“I still find that a large majority of people in our country, in particular, want to see kids do well, we want to see public education do well, we want to see kids have opportunities to do well. When you’re able to find and land on common interests and common goals – even with people of different philosophical and political values and beliefs – you are always able to move the agenda forward because you can find common ground and move forward over it.”
There are no shortcuts to improving and maintaining student achievement, he said. The path to improvement is to “ensure that every student has access to a high quality teacher in the classroom, whose content and pedagogy are strong”.
Wright started out as a high school social studies teacher.
A new job as an elementary school principal in Washington, D.C. in 2007 reignited what has become his lifelong interest in how children—especially elementary school children—learn to read and do math and acquire social and emotional skills.
“We have a crisis in our country of children sitting in classrooms well past third grade, but who still have gaps in decoding, phonemic awareness and fluency,” he said. . “We haven’t done anything to address these issues and the kids just go from year to year, and we get what we have.”
Wright, who had punctuated his earlier conversation with laughter, got serious about literacy.
“I think if we really want to transform student achievement, we can’t ignore the literacy crisis,” he said. “We need to correct and close the gaps as soon as possible – when children enter school, then for children who have already progressed in certain grades, we need to put in place the right interventions to deal … with the gaps that have never been filled in. This means that you may have to make sacrifices and do nothing else.
He said he placed a heavy emphasis on pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, first and second grades rather than the years in which students take state-required tests. This focus on the early years can pay off when children reach the third grade.
Mixed with early literacy, the focus should be on numeracy or math, as well as social and emotional learning, he said. Social and emotional learning cannot be taught outside of academics.
“Especially for children affected by poverty, a student’s social and emotional competence is more of an indicator of later academic achievement than some of the academic interventions we tend to focus on.”
These social and emotional skills include a child’s ability to regulate their emotions, how to make friends, how to start a conversation, and how to interact with adults.
“Kids who master these things do well in school,” he said.
Prior to his work in Mississippi, Wright worked from 2017 to 2019 as an academics and accountability officer at schools with 23,000 students in Birmingham, Alabama, where he led efforts to reduce school attendance. F-grade schools from 22 to six and otherwise raised the district’s accountability rating from an F to a C in two school years, according to his resume.
He is a former assistant superintendent at Philadelphia Schools, from 2016 to 2017. He served as Chief Superintendent of Education at Denver Schools from 2013 to 2016, and served as Principal at Leckie Elementary in Washington, D.C., from 2009 to 2013.
He spent 10 years as a principal and teacher in Jacksonville, Florida, first as a teacher at Potters House Christian Academy and then as principal of Duval County Public Schools.
Wright holds two bachelor’s degrees, one in religious education and the other in social science and secondary education, the latter from the University of North Florida at Jacksonville, where he earned a master’s degree. He holds a specialist designation from the University of Florida at Gainesville and a doctorate in equity leadership from the University of Colorado at Denver.