House Resigns as Memphis Superintendent
Gerry House is leaving her job as the change-minded superintendent in Memphis, Tenn., to lead a New York-based partnership that helps schools strive for better-prepared graduates and fewer dropouts.
Ms. House, the 1999 National Superintendent of the Year and one of the few women to lead a major urban school system, will leave the 112,000-student district April 3.
Her eight years in Memphis have been filled with successes and strife, and most definitely change. In one of the most far-reaching attempts by a large district to bring about comprehensive schoolwide change, Ms. House has required each of the city's 161 schools to adopt one of several "whole school" design models—efforts that worked well in some schools and not as well in others.
"All of the work we're doing in Memphis is to ensure that all of the children—not some, all of the children—leave school with the skills and competencies they need to be successful adults," Ms. House, 52, said last week. "I believe we have built the foundation for that to happen and are seeing results of that."
She acknowledged, however, the Memphis remains a work in progress: "Like most people, you wish your results would come bigger and quicker."
Research has shown academic improvements in some schools, but an overall lack of substantially higher test scores has plagued Ms. House's tenure, said Steven Ross, a professor of educational research who oversees the Center for Research and Educational Policy at the University of Memphis.
Another hurdle between Ms. House's plans and their full realization has been the struggle against poverty in the city.
"You can bring in whatever superintendent you want, but unless the conditions change, it's going to be an uphill battle," Mr. Ross said. "A lot of the media and the public [in the suburbs] don't understand that."
The resignation came as a surprise to many in the city, and Ms. House herself acknowledged that she hadn't been looking for a job. "Of all the offers that came my way, this was the first one I actually interviewed for," said the superintendent, who earns $174,000 a year.
During her tenure, Ms. House has worked to form partnerships with business leaders in an attempt to restore public confidence in the schools and find alternative sources of money.
"I think they feel she has made a good effort. She's not someone who just sits around being famous," said Jane Walters, a former Tennessee education commissioner and Memphis school administrator who now heads Partners in Public Education, a local, nonprofit foundation.
Another challenge, Ms. House said, was convincing many educators that changes were needed and that specific programs could help schools improve.
"Part of the initial work was creating the urgency for change and helping people see why the district, in spite of having been a good district, needed change," she said. "There were some non-negotiables. Students need to learn to read in elementary school. I think that's a non-negotiable."
In her new job, Ms. House said, she will be able to use her passion for working with underprivileged students in new ways.
She will be the president and chief executive officer of the Institute for Student Achievement, a public-private partnership based on Long Island that has mainly worked with New York City-area schools on dropout prevention and to better prepare at-risk students for college or careers.
The institute's decision to expand its work into other districts, such as the Fairfax County, Va., schools in suburban Washington, signaled the need for a top administrator, and Ms. House said the organization asked her to apply.
Before arriving in Memphis in 1992, Ms. House was the superintendent of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro, N.C., schools, where she began as a guidance counselor. She began her teaching career near her hometown of Stuart, Va., in the western part of the state.
Mayor Willie Herenton has announced an effort to gain more control over the Memphis schools through a mayorally appointed school board, a model that has been adopted in other large urban districts. Mr. Herenton was the district's superintendent before Ms. House, and his plan would require a change in state law, which many observers say is a major challenge.
The school board meets Feb. 7 to discuss plans for a nationwide search and possible interim replacements, said board member Laura Jobe. One candidate being mentioned for the interim post is Ms. Walters, the former state commissioner, who said she doesn't want the permanent job.
Ms. Walters, whose group has convinced businesses to pledge $250,000 for a national search, said she hopes Memphis' next superintendent won't abandon Ms. House's programs, especially where they've worked. But the new chief will need to seek ways of helping still-struggling schools improve.
"They have put so much energy into this," Ms. Walters said. "It would be a shame to take a 90-degree turn."
Vol. 19, Issue 21, Page 3