LRSD Leader Jermall Wright Focuses On Students' Needs

LRSD Leader Jermall Wright Focuses On Students' Needs
Jermall Wright (Jason Burt)

Jermall Wright was named superintendent of the Little Rock School District in May. Previously, he had served as chief academic and accountability officer for the Birmingham City School District in Alabama since 2017. He began his career in 1997 as a fifth-grade and middle school social studies teacher in Jacksonville, Florida.

He transitioned to administrative roles in 2001, serving first as assistant principal with Alachua County Public Schools in Gainesville, Florida, then spending a decade as a principal with The Potter’s House Christian Academy and Duval County Public Schools, both in Jacksonville, and District of Columbia Public Schools in Washington. From 2013-17, he worked for Denver Public Schools as an instructional superintendent.

Wright earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of North Florida, a specialist degree in special education from the University of Florida and a doctorate in education from the University of Colorado Denver.

Wright is also a college and university instructor, having taught for teacher prep and educational leadership programs in Florida, Washington and Denver.

What is your strategy for improving students’ test scores?

Student achievement outcomes in the Little Rock School District will improve as we shift our district focus to align with our core business: teaching and learning. Our entire system, which includes every department and every individual regardless of position, must be united in our collective understanding that we are all responsible for ensuring we remain laser-focused on students and their needs, in addition to the needs of our teachers and school leaders who are in front of children every day.

For students, we must ensure that their social and emotional needs are being addressed while also ensuring that they receive access to daily instructional experiences that are both relevant and standards/grade level-aligned and instructional experiences that remediate and accelerate academic content mastered by students in the quickest amount of time possible. 

There is no shortcut or magic strategy we can apply to sustainably and authentically improve student learning outcomes. The strategy is to ensure all students in LRSD receive high-quality instruction every day that is aligned with their needs. It may sound simple, but the execution of this strategy is extremely complex and involves many different moving parts of our school system.

Should your teachers be paid more? How do you intend to move the needle there?

Of course our teachers should be paid more. Teaching is one of the most important professions in our society, and when you compound all of the responsibilities teachers are expected to perform, it is also a very demanding and challenging profession. Teachers should be compensated based on the significance of their profession, and I think most would agree that a starting salary in the mid- to upper-$30,000 [range] is far from a salary that denotes the significance of the job. In LRSD, we are working toward implementing a three-year compensation proposal for teachers.

We have already implemented phase one, which increased the beginning teacher salary from $36,000 to $43,000 with additional raises for all teachers based on years of experience. We are preparing now to implement phase two, which will increase beginning teachers’ salaries from $43,000 to $45,000 with additional step increases for teachers at all levels of experience. The final phase will move the beginning teacher salaries from $45,000 to $48,000, placing LRSD in the top five districts in the state with the highest beginning salaries for teachers.

What are LRSD’s biggest funding needs and challenges?

We have many aging and aged school buildings in LRSD. I believe our biggest funding challenge will be related to ensuring school facility equity among all schools in the district. We have already begun consolidating schools in aging buildings and placing students into larger and brand-new state-of-the-art facilities. Little Rock Southwest High School is one example. We are currently building the new Dr. Marian G. Lacey K-8 school, which serves as another example. Nevertheless, we have many more aging buildings throughout the district that we will also need to generate solutions to address. Funding to do so will be a major need and challenge.

How will you work to restore confidence in Little Rock public schools following their long stint of being run by the state?

Confidence and trust are earned with time, through experiences and by actions. One of the major ways I intend to earn trust from a wide variety of internal and external stakeholders is through engaging them and including them in district operations, problem-solving and decision making. I have a number of advisory councils established for students, teachers, classified employees, parents and community groups that I will meet with monthly. I believe that these interactions and experiences will increase confidence and the belief that the LRSD administration is serious about partnering and is open to new ideas and ways of operating that will benefit our students and our employees.

I think transparency will also aid in restoring confidence and trust in LRSD. I’ve spent countless hours meeting with individual community members, faith-based and civic groups, the business community and a host of district employees before I officially started in the role of superintendent.

Two things are crystal clear from all of these conversations. LRSD has so much to celebrate and be proud of (No. 1), and LRSD also has several challenges that we must face and address. For the most part, people know what we do well and don’t do well. It isn’t a secret. Why not be open and educate the public about our challenges and also include the public in figuring out the best and most efficient way to get better? In other places I’ve led, this approach has helped people to have faith and confidence in leadership even if they did not always agree with every decision made. My hunch is this strategy may yield the same outcomes here in Little Rock.

Lastly, I’ll just say that when people see us take action on longstanding issues and when they see how well the board and superintendent work together with governance and operating the district, I believe the public will know this.

What changes do you intend to make to ensure LRSD produces college- or career-ready individuals?

I’d start by replicating my response to question No. 1 and digging a little deeper into the actions/changes that must take place in order to ensure that we are providing an educational experience that is effectively meeting the needs of our entire student population.

When you think about LRSD and our “end users” (our students) and the product we provide (an educational experience), you don’t immediately think about things like recruitment and retention of staff. However, if we as a district are not doing our absolute best to attract, recruit and retain top talent in our district, our ability to provide a great product is greatly diminished. This is just one example of many that I could provide to illustrate this point.

Another example could be our physical facilities. If we have school buildings that do not provide the optimal or desired learning environment for students, their ability and/or motivation to learn may be hampered.

To help me and others in the LRSD administration fully and comprehensively understand how every part of the system is currently operating, we plan to partner with an external entity to conduct districtwide reviews and audits during my first year as superintendent. The information gained from these reviews will help to inform and sequence systemic changes we need to make.

There are some things, however, we know we need to change now and don’t necessarily need to wait for an audit. An example of such is the changes already made to our administrative structure and the creation of an Academics Division within LRSD. We have moved all departments and functions in LRSD that provide direct support and services to students, teachers and school leaders into one division headed by our chief academic officer. The goal here is to break down departmental and operational silos so that our support to schools and school leaders will be more aligned and communication between the district and schools will improve.

What role, if any, do you see local industry playing in the education of LRSD students?

Local industry has and will continue to play a large role (possibly larger) in the education of LRSD students. We have been on a multiyear journey with the Little Rock Regional Chamber/Academies of Central Arkansas and the implementation of the Ford NGL academy framework in all of our high schools. … As we continue to develop and expand career academies in our high schools, we will be intentional about partnering with other local businesses and industries to help us prepare our students for life post-high school graduation. This partnership and framework will also be vital to changing the way we provide educational experiences in high schools to align more with student interests, which will aid in student engagement, high school completion and preparation for college and/or career.

Why did you decide to move to Arkansas for this position; what attracted you to the state?

There were a plethora of attractions that drew me to Little Rock and to LRSD in particular. The capital city of every state is always going to provide you with a better quality of life and activity options than you might find in other cities within the state. This was a huge draw for me — everything from the restaurant scene (I love to eat) to all of the outdoor activities, markets, festivals, etc. Little Rock has much more to offer than most would think.

While studying the district and the profile of the district developed by the search firm, it was clear that there was an ecosystem of resources available to LRSD and support from various segments of the city who all have a vested interest in the success of LRSD. There is a tangible focus in the city on economic development, and having a great public school system is a part of that focus. The support and partnership from the city of Little Rock — evidenced by its investment in our Community Schools model which has now expanded to six schools — speaks to just how invested this community is in LRSD’s success. These were all motivating factors for me to put Little Rock at the top of my list. I am thrilled about the opportunity to serve as the superintendent of the Little Rock School District and equally excited about what we will accomplish together as a community.