The Comeback Kid: Jammie Poole's plan to save a struggling Memphis charter school

Before moving back to Memphis, Jammie Poole was a turnaround artist as principal of a Chicago public school. Now at the helm of the struggling Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering, he has big plans for the Memphis charter school. 
The Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering (MASE) is in trouble. In 2012 it was put on the Tennessee Department of Education's "priority list," meaning that for each of the previous three years, it had ranked in the bottom five percent of Tennessee schools, based on test scores. If MASE doesn't shape up--and fast--then it could get shut down. That's where new Executive Director Jammie Poole's challenge lies. And if his track record is any indication, the future of MASE is bright. 
 
Founded in 2003, MASE is Tennessee's first charter school. That means it gets most of its money from the government, but it's not run by the government, and it doesn't have to follow the same rules as a regular public school. By law, charter schools are required to be free and open to all children, but they are given greater autonomy when it comes to designing a curriculum, as well as hiring and firing staff.
 
In return, they are expected to meet certain benchmarks of academic performance. As evidenced by its presence on the priority list, MASE has not been meeting those benchmarks. All of which has prompted some Memphians to ask, why use taxpayer dollars to prop up a failing charter school? Does Memphis even need charters?
 
That's a question the recently hired Poole isn't afraid to answer. "If you had asked me eight years ago," says Poole, "I would have said no. Back then I felt like, if you just give public schools the resources they need, and if you give the teachers the development they need, they can produce results that are as good or better than any charter."
 
"But what I've learned," he continues, "is that parents want options. If you live in a neighborhood with a failing public school, then you should have the option to choose a different school for your child."
 
Hired in March, Poole is the man everyone is counting on to turn this struggling school around. He's an interesting choice for the job, because his background is in public school administration--which is exactly what charter schools were designed to circumvent. Poole says the irony isn't lost on him.
 
"I think it's a two-way street," says Poole. "I mean, a lot of public school administrators are looking to charters as well. As educators, I think we're all just looking for new ideas, ideas that work, and it doesn't really matter where they came from."
 
Poole, 41, grew up in Memphis, attending Westside Middle and Hamilton High. After graduating from Rust College, he taught English at Fairview and Melrose. From there he joined New Leaders for New Schools, a nonprofit that trains aspiring principals in the latest and most effective leadership practices. That took him to Chicago, where he got his master's in education from National-Louis University.
 
In 2008 Poole was named principal of Orr Academy, a struggling high school in Chicago's Westside neighborhood. At the time he was just 35 years old, and his only leadership experience was as a high school English teacher.
 
Meanwhile Orr was in dire straits. Many of its students had been incarcerated or kicked out of other schools, and its hallways were beset with gangs and drugs. When Poole came on in 2008, attendance was at 61%, and just 7% of students met state requirements for proficiency in science and math.
 
"I remember the day they called and offered me the job," says Poole. "I was so nervous. I remember thinking, that building is so big! How am I gonna take care of that whole building?"
 
Over the next three years, Poole planted the seeds of a turnaround at Orr. He built a new staff from the ground up, instituted school uniforms and drafted parents to patrol school hallways. He also introduced a system of teacher accountability called "The Power of Twelve." Under this model, each teacher became personally responsible for the academic performance of twelve students.
 
As a result, Orr's numbers started to rise. Orr Academy and its proud principal were even featured in the New York Times, in an article that crowed, "Former Failing School Serves as National Model."
 
Poole has brought the lessons he learned in Chicago and with him to Memphis. Since joining MASE in March, he has replaced over 70% of its teachers and 100% of its administrators. To fill 120 positions, he conducted more than 1200 interviews--or about ten interviews for every available job.
 
"For our new staff, we were looking for teachers who understand data and know how to process data," says Poole. "But maybe more importantly, we're looking for teachers who know how to mentor kids and motivate them to learn."
 
"It's not just what we do in the eight to nine hours of the school day," he continues. "We've got to ask ourselves, what are we as a staff going doing before school and after school to make sure we give our kids the opportunities they need to get ahead?"
 
Poole maintains that MASE's presence on the priority list is a little misleading. For starters, it was treated by the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) as a high school and graded against other high schools (grades 9 through 12). But MASE also includes a middle school (grades 6 and 7), a fact that TDOE statisticians seem to have neglected. As a rule, middle schoolers know less than high schoolers, so they score lower on achievement tests--all of which helped to bring down MASE's average.
 
Furthermore, Poole contends, test scores don't tell the whole story. As an example, he cites MASE's college placement statistics: over the last three years, MASE has placed 100% of its students in two- or four-year colleges. And in 2013, the school actually earned the state's highest ranking on the Tennessee Value Added Assessment System, which measures improvement in test scores.
 
Still, Poole acknowledges that he's got a lot of work to do.
 
"Hope is not a strategy," he says. "We have to be held accountable, and we have to do whatever it takes to get off that list. Period."
 
To turn MASE around, Poole is instituting a new focus on data. To that end, he has enlisted the services of the Achievement Network, a nonprofit that helps struggling schools improve their performance through constant data monitoring.
 
By working one on one with professional coaches from the Achievement Network, MASE's teachers will learn how to learn how to build their curricula around the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP), the system of standardized tests used to measure student achievement at the end of every year. By using quarterly assessments, they will devise action plans and interventions for struggling students.
 
"I'm gonna take these kids," says Poole, "and I'm gonna put their names up on the wall in the faculty meeting. And I'm gonna say to my teachers, who owns these kids? Who in this building is responsible for their learning?"
 
Poole says that he will measure his success in the coming year through several important metrics: improved test scores, increased attendance, growing enrollment and teacher retention. Down the line, he says he also expects his new approach to pay off in the kinds of college admissions that his seniors are getting.
 
"We love the University of Memphis," says Poole. "We love LeMoyne-Owen, and all the colleges that our kids go to now. But when we see them going to STEM schools like Georgia Tech and MTSU, that's when we'll know we're moving in the right direction."

Read more articles by John Minervini.

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