Memphis-Shelby County Schools board Chair Althea Greene gives students high fives as they line up for lunch at Wells Station Elementary. Although the superintendent search is one of the hottest topics in Memphis right now, Greene wants to keep the district focused on students and COVID recovery.
Courtesy of Memphis-Shelby County Schools
Althea Greene understands the assignment.
Memphis-Shelby County Schools is in a moment of major transitions. The school board is preparing to embark on its first nationwide superintendent search in a decade — over two months after the school board cut ties with former Superintendent Joris Ray, who had been under investigation over claims he abused his power and violated district policies.
Meanwhile, the composition of the school board has drastically changed after it gained three new members in less than two months.
But as Greene begins her tenure as the elected chair of the MSCS board, she wants to keep the district focused on what matters most: Ensuring its more than 110,000 students recover from the catastrophic academic, social, and emotional consequences of the pandemic.
“I don’t want our teachers or our students worrying about the next leader,” Greene said on a recent crisp autumn morning in Memphis. “I want teachers to worry about their students, I want students to worry about learning, I want administrators to worry about staying a Level 5 school, and you let the board worry about the other piece.”
Greene, a former MSCS educator who joined the board in 2019, invited a Chalkbeat reporter to shadow her on visits to three schools in her district — Jackson Elementary, Wells Station Elementary, and Trezevant Middle School — one morning in late October.
During the visits, Greene shared her vision and discussed her top priorities as the new leader of the board governing Tennessee’s largest school system. Beyond finding a new superintendent who can “take the district to the next level,” Greene hopes to build on the momentum of MSCS’ improvements on the latest state standardized tests, restore trust in the school board and entire district, update aging school buildings, and address hundreds of millions of dollars of deferred facilities maintenance.
To Greene, that starts with building relationships and being present regularly inside school buildings and across the community.
“I don’t want to walk in the path that other board chairs walked in. I want to blaze my own trail,” Greene said. “I want to be that school board chair that works on building and bridging relationships.”
What inspires Greene’s priorities for the work ahead is her background as an educator of nearly four decades who personally appreciates their “heart and hard work each and every day” and understands that they’re the key to recovering from the damages of the pandemic.
Michelle McKissack, the board’s previous chairwoman who is now mulling a run for Memphis mayor, said she enjoyed having Greene as her vice chair over the last year. She praised Greene’s teaching experience and her willingness to work with everyone, even those she disagrees with.
“I think this was an absolutely perfect time for her to become chair, as a former educator,” McKissack said. “As we’re going into the next phase looking for our next superintendent, to have someone at the helm who’s done that and had that classroom experience is great.”
Newly elected Memphis-Shelby County Schools board chair Althea Greene talks with school staff during a late October visit to Treadwell Middle School.
Courtesy of Memphis-Shelby County Schools
Greene often thinks about the serendipity of her serving as a school board member for part of North Memphis, where she grew up and taught in for much of her four-decade career as an educator. She taught at seven schools, and today, she represents four of those schools, plus three schools she herself attended as a student.
“I never thought I would get to represent the schools that invested in my education and helped to make me the person that I am,” Greene said.
As Greene drove around District 2, which includes neighborhoods like Binghampton and Berclair, as well as some of North Memphis, many streets and schools merited stories — her heartbreak early in her career when she was transferred from Snowden School to Jackson Elementary, a school she had never heard of. And there was the time she portrayed Michael Jackson in a school talent show, complete with the King of Pop’s iconic hair and moonwalk.
Over those 38 years she spent working in MSCS, Greene doesn’t recall hearing much about the school board at all, except for a few major controversies. And she doesn’t remember school board members visiting her schools, at least until she was transferred back to Snowden, where she spent the remaining 25 years of her career.
Greene wasn’t alone in that experience. Since being appointed to the board by the Shelby County Commission three years ago, teachers and other school staff told Greene on countless occasions that they’d never or rarely seen school board members set foot in their buildings.
That’s why Greene has prided herself on visiting at least one school every week and every school in her district at least three times a year. She plans to continue that practice as board chair. Greene believes it helps improve morale among the district’s 6,000 teachers and, in turn, uplift COVID recovery efforts.
At all three of the schools Greene visited, she asked each principal the same first questions: “How can I support you? What do you need?”
Using the $125,000 annual budget each school board member can allocate to schools and projects of their choosing, Greene then allocates funding to address those needs — whether it’s for new technology, office furniture, staff lunches to boost morale, or student incentives to reward good behavior and attendance.
MSCS saw a near 10 percentage point increase in chronic absenteeism last year — a problem many districts across the nation are grappling with after the pandemic.
Greene has supported many of the district’s flagship COVID recovery initiatives, including expanding before- and after-school tutoring programs, adding teachers assistants to lower the student-to-adult ratio in K-2 classrooms, and adding an academic intervention period to the school to help students catch up. But Greene also believes boosting teacher morale is also key to the district bouncing back.
Recently, Greene used a portion of her $125,000 to provide a taco bar to teachers at Jackson and every other school in her district that received the top rating for growth in literacy, numeracy, and composite student growth as measured by end-of-year state testing. And during her late October visit to Jackson, Greene pledged more funding for student and staff incentives.
For Greene, it was the little things that made her a happy teacher — something as small as a soda and a bag of chips at lunch or a candy bar at 2 p.m. That’s why she encourages principals to find different ways to appreciate their staff.
“I always say to my principals,” Greene said, “keep your folks happy and they will come to work every day. They won’t leave.”
Althea Greene, chairwoman of the Memphis-Shelby County Schools board, chats with Corey Jones, principal of Jackson Elementary, during a recent visit. She’s helped Jones with funding for teacher appreciation events and student incentives to boost attendance.
Courtesy of Memphis-Shelby County Schools
Corey Jones, principal of Jackson Elementary, said Greene’s help “makes life easier” when he needs something to make his staff feel appreciated or one of his teachers needs something for their class and is unable to buy it themselves.
To Jones, having a former educator at the helm of the school board is a blessing.
“It’s tough out there. You know that,” Jones said, with a pointed glance at Greene during her visit last month. “You can always call her for help.”
Keisa Jackson, principal of Wells Station Elementary also looks forward to Greene’s visits.
“Sometimes I have to call and be like ‘when are you coming to see me?’” she said with a laugh, as she and Greene greeted students entering the lunch room. Jackson later asked Greene for help getting new laptops for three of her administrators. On the spot, Greene committed to arrange it.
“On a personal level, she’s helped me help” students and staff, Jackson said. “I can honestly say that Dr. Greene is in the trenches with us and, in every conversation, it’s students first.”
In recent months, the support Greene has given Brandon Hill, principal of Treadwell Middle School, has focused on beautification projects at the school, which was built in the early 1900s.
As Greene pulled up to Treadwell Middle School, she pridefully pointed out the new marquee she got a good deal on after a recent storm damaged the old sign, and the freshly painted crosswalks she helped fund.
Then, she let out a large sigh. “All of these buildings are so old,” Greene said. “It is embarrassing that stuff is still here from when I went to school in ’75.”
As she walked around the school with Hill, Greene shook her head at the worn, wooden seats in the auditorium — the same seats she sat in for assembly and performances when she was a student there. And because the middle school shares a cafeteria with the connected Treadwell Elementary, Greene pointed out that students have to begin eating lunch every day at 9:30 a.m. — if you can even call that lunch, she added.
Greene hopes that in the near future, MSCS can build a new $34 million Treadwell K-8 — or any school at all. District officials had targeted 2026 for completion of the new Treadwell school to replace the existing elementary and middle schools. But that project and many others in its Reimagining 901 improvement and facilities plan remain in limbo due to funding issues.
As chair, Greene said she hopes to do whatever she can to get Reimagining 901 back on track.
“Many of our students graduate and they’ve never gone to a brand new school. They don’t get to live in brand new houses. Let’s face it, we’re a poor city,” Greene said. “My prayer is that, before they leave from being a student here from pre-K to 12th grade, they get to attend at least one brand new school.”
Former Memphis-Shelby County Schools board Chair Michelle McKissack (center) speaks with reporters during a press conference on Aug. 23, after the board approved an agreement ending Joris Ray’s employment with the district. McKissack is joined by fellow board members Charles Everett and Althea Greene.
Ariel Cobbert for Chalkbeat
Key to all of Greene’s goals — COVID recovery, improving district facilities, and finding the best possible next superintendent — is restoring trust in the MSCS board, after a summer filled with controversy surrounding Ray’s alleged sexual relationships with subordinates.
“I felt that for a while, the community lost trust in us as a board,” Greene said. “They didn’t think we were operating with integrity, but there was so much going on behind the scenes.”
After the board launched an investigation into Ray and placed him on paid administrative leave, Greene thought the community “realized we were listening.” Still, she acknowledged there is a lot of ground to recover, even after the board decided to spend nearly $500,000 to buy out Ray’s contract.
“It was painful, and I cried a lot, but I had to do what was best for children,” Greene said. “I want people to trust me. I’m excited to make that happen.”
Greene also plans to involve the community as much as possible in the superintendent search. She is in the process of forming several committees to provide input on candidates — one composed of community education leaders, another of board member-appointed representatives from each of the district’s nine districts, as well as a student committee.
“We are partners and we want them to support us and work with us,” Greene said. “We must be willing to listen.”
Samantha West is a reporter for Chalkbeat Tennessee, where she covers K-12 education in Memphis. Connect with Samantha at [email protected]
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