During a Wednesday afternoon conversation with the Tri-State Defender, Cash said 2010-11 was, in many ways, “Our best year yet because it was clear that the culture of expectations of excellence has taken hold throughout the district and we are going to continue that upward trajectory now.”
‘Culture of expectations’
Whenever system change – including system thinking – is underway, “You have to change from the inside out,” said Cash. “It is not enough for a leader to come along with a host of platitudes and tell everyone what he or she expects of them.”
While you do start with that, he said, “You have to be the change you want to see…. We are starting to see that folks get that.”
A long-held perception of Memphis City Schools is beginning to change, said Cash, painting a picture of a concentric circle working outward.
Noting President Obama’s visit as affirming developments here, and an earlier visits by billionaire philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates to inspect their work and investment, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Cash said a lot of folks are interested in “what we are doing, how we are doing it and whether we are going to get to that finish line. You never finish, but you certainly have aims and goals that you are striving off of.”
In a year during which Memphis City Schools was put on course to merge with Shelby County Schools, and the tumultuous ride to that point, Cash reaches for the term “A thrilling finish.”
Everyone in MCS was professional and steadfast throughout the change process, said Cash.
“No one allowed the political distractions and other things that have occurred this year to get them off point or to look sideways….The public needed to see how loyal and committed the great, great majority of staff are to insuring success.”
Just as it is impossible to anticipate tornados and floods, when the expected happens, you close in around the mission and the goal, he said.
What if the President had not come?
|For Memphis City Schools, 2010-11 would qualify as a leap forward, even if President Obama had not chosen Booker T. Washington High School as the Race to the Top Commencement Challenge winner, says Supt. Dr. Kriner Cash. (Photo courtesy of Memphis City Schools) |
He stressed the importance of the superintendent “demanding excellence from everyone, me having absolutely zero tolerance for waste or fraud or abuse in any way of the system. While we know it is a large system, that (waste or fraud or abuse) will happen from time to time, you see increasingly less and less of that kind of thing because slowly but surely we are rooting it out,” he said.
Replacing that, he said, is No. 1 or top five performance awards, not just locally, but in the country from division after division, from finance to nutrition to music education to risk management.
He pointed to individual schools winning national awards in student performance, adding that MCS high school graduates amassed more than $178,000,000 in college scholarship offers, and stressing many schools doubled scholarship totals from the previous year. And he emphasized the awards garnered by teachers, guidance counselors and principals.
All the while, the business side of MCS is being reformed “so that we are working, smarter, faster, better cheaper.”
“There is a lot of new ground being tilled here. I am humbly proud, but again, the credit goes to the people who are taking the leadership direction and actually getting it done and not resisting it and not saying, ‘Well, and this too shall pass.’ There was a time when that was happening a lot in Memphis.”
Next year and meeting raised expectations
Don’t expect to see a lot of new things, next year, said Cash. Instead you will start to see the reforms yielding more. For instance, in IT and procurement systems and in finance, human resources, transportation and food services.
And there will be a laser-like focus on teaching, with communications focusing on recognizing and rewarding good teaching.
“You’ve got to work hard like they do at BTW. I use that as a metaphor. They’ve done it at Booker T, everywhere else has no excuse. You have got to hit the mark,” he said.
“And here is how you do it…. You actually have to love the children. Then you have to hire other people who think that same way and feel that same way and are willing to go beyond common measure to help fulfill promise of a young person.”
Those are the basics, said Cash. “And then you start to work.”
As Memphis City School students achieve at a higher level and ready themselves for wealth generation, what happens if job opportunities are not there?
Cash said he has that as an ongoing concern because it is tied into what he called three major game-changers for the city.
“We’ve got to take a bigger bite out of poverty. Education helps to do that. We’ve got to take a bite out of the violence and crime indicators. We’re on a good trajectory to continue to improve in that regard with the new police director and I working very well together around some youth initiatives.
“And then third, we’ve got to take a much bigger bite out of this economic segregation issue that is here in Shelby,” he said.
Young people, he said, must be prepared to seize opportunity.
“It’s not about whether there is a job for me. It’s what do I really want to do and what am I trying to accomplish. And sooner than later, opportunity will meet preparation,” he said.
“You also can start your own logistics and distribution company… create a car and get it on the market. Create your own communications firm and international company. You have brilliance inside … you make your own way.”
What cash has learned?
The main thing he learned this year is that it takes time to grow a good crop, said Cash.
“I am by nature, impatient. I want it done yesterday. But when you are dealing with the human heart and the human mind, which is what our young people are, you have to really, really nurture and cultivate those seeds with care and throughout the pipeline from birth all the way through to their own families.”
You can put at 3 or 5 year plan together, but at best you just begin to build the great work of a first class system of schools, not just a school system, he said.
So is farmer Cash/general contractor Cash going to be around for a while?
“I can’t predict that because that is in God’s hands,” he said. “But I do not think the work is finished. We’re just off to a decent start. We’ve done an awful lot in a short time,” he said.
“You will see a commitment to at least five years, and I would like to see perhaps a little more, if the opportunity presents itself, so that I can feel like the children are safe, that we have everything on a much better trajectory, and the proof is in pudding. Then it would be time to pass it off. But right now, I am only a third or half way there.”
Dr. Cash – the extended conversation
Asked if there was anything that he wanted to come to fruition that did not, Supt. Dr. Kriner Cash noted that there is a data lag, with so much data measurement results for 2010-11 yet to come. Specifically, he wants to sustain the graduation rate progress of last year, calling it “so impressive.”
“It went from 60 to 70.8. Nearly 70.8 graduation rate for a large, complex, largely minority and poor urban school district population. That is unheard of in the country,” he said.
Cash wants to see that rate go up and said he would be disappointed if the data does not reflect that.
“It’s not that we accomplished everything, because we never do, but I really want us to just be as one as a school community, people supporting their schools. People can certainly be critical of it, but that they are putting in their time and their energy behind the children and I can feel that.”
The City Schools charter revocation movement, actually helped a bit, Cash said.
“Although there were many agendas in that, I think you started to see folks sort of rally around the right cause in some instances,”
Local foundations stepped up in substantial measure to match funds from Bill and Melinda Gates to improve the teaching core, said Cash. That, he said, is a sign that the city is progressing.
So what would Cash consider legitimate criticism of him and Memphis City Schools?
There are always critics and the work is hard, said Cash, adding that he has pushed hard because so much change was needed.
“Memphis was sort of a slow-to-move kind of region,” said Cash, accepting as legitimate the criticism that he was “going to fast,” and “he’s trying to do too much.”
“I am,” he said, “trying to accomplish a lot. And I am moving fast and with urgency.”
As a point of reference, Cash turned to the basketball court, where, he said, some who saw him play likened him to a point guard in the vain of retired NBA veteran Nate Archibald and Rajon Rondo, who now powers the ball up court for the Boston Celtics.
For such players, there is no slow pace, said Cash. “There is only one gear and that is hard, that’s fast and that’s all the time.”
Looking now at what that pace yielded, a case emerges for the argument that maybe those things pushed for were needed, said Cash. As examples, he brings up health clinics that he said now are being used by thousands. And he said an early childhood emphasis has MCS in a better position to cut down on the over-age-for-grade problem, which he linked to youth violence and dropping out of school.
Finally, Cash said, there is a lot of misconception about him, stressing that he is caring, giving, sincerely wants to help children and genuinely loves them.
Cash said he genuinely believes that poverty here can be turned around.
“I’m committed to it, I am determined to make a difference on these issues. Yes, I’m outside. That’s Ok. People say, ‘If you were not born in such and such, then you weren’t such.’ I get that. That’s legitimate criticism. I am not from here, but I don’t feel you have to be from here in order to be helpful, and that’s my only agenda; to assist the city to reach its true greatness.