For a new school principal arriving in Memphis, this might seem like at least an interesting time and place to become a school administrator.
For Russ Ramsey, he is also starting a new school in August that is part of the state-run Achievement School District in an area of Memphis where all but one school is among the lowest performing in the state in terms of student achievement.
Ramsey is the new principal of the Frayser 9th Grade Academy, which opens in August within Westside Achievement Middle School.
“It’s going to be really hard, and it’s going to be really fun,” Ramsey said. “I can’t think of a more important place to be doing this work.”
Ramsey’s work is the work of his family for several generations.
“I come from a family of educators,” he said. “My grandpa, who was my idol, was a teacher and a football coach and a principal and worked with a small district. From showing up in college, I knew that’s kind of where I was going to end up being.”
Ramsey earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology at Texas A&M University, one of many campuses where the teacher residency program Teach For America has a presence.
Ramsey joined the group and served his residency in the Charlotte, N.C., school system teaching in elementary and high school. From there, he became a high school math and science teacher at a charter school, the KIPP Gaston College Preparatory School in rural Gaston, N.C. He was varsity baseball coach as well.
“I got to really see a model of an excellent high school program that changed kids’ lives and changed communities,” Ramsey said of his experience in Gaston.
KIPP is part of the set of charter schools in Memphis, which has more charter schools than any other place in Tennessee. And Teach for America is one of several national teacher residency programs that have been a key part of the changes to public education in Memphis.
Ramsey left KIPP to do more psychology and education research at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, including work with the National Center on Scaling Up Effective Schools, the Children’s Learning Lab and the Educational Cognitive Neuroscience Lab.
“It’s going to be really hard, and it’s going to be really fun. I can’t think of a more important place to be doing this work.”
Frayser 9th Grade Academy
A month before moving to Memphis, Ramsey earned his master’s degree in education policy from Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education.
The work in the Frayser cluster of three schools – Frayser and Corning Achievement Elementary and Westside – so far has been undertaken directly by the Achievement School District without charter operators. It has attracted attention nationally and within teaching groups and teacher residency programs that are a part of the three Frayser schools.
But it’s happened against a backdrop in which the rise of charter school operators in the coming school year and beyond has drawn much of the local attention in an already dense political atmosphere including the schools merger.
Balancing that are the problems Frayser has faced since the plants and factories that made it the city’s most blue-collar suburb began to close in the 1980s. The area has never fully recovered from those and along with Hickory Hill was one of the two areas of the city hit hardest by the mortgage-foreclosure crisis.
And it’s where Ramsey wants to be.
“In Memphis, specifically, and Tennessee, there is a lot of effort and a lot of policy and a lot of programs and time and talent being put into improving education from kindergarten through high school and into college,” he said. “I think in Memphis, specifically, you see a lot of people starting to work toward that end. That’s what drew me to Memphis, is just seeing the beginning of this concentration of people and of ideas and of attention toward working in communities and improving our neighborhood schools.”
Ramsey arrived in Memphis late in the spring and immediately went to Westside nearing the end of its first school year as part of the Achievement School District. He began talking with parents who had indicated support for something like the academy for their children as an alternative to a move into Frayser High School in the ninth grade. Westside feeds into Frayser High.
That’s not necessarily a knock against Frayser High School, which is also in the bottom 5 percent of the state’s public schools in terms of students’ achievement – the status that makes it a candidate for inclusion in the ASD in the future.
Westside was built as – and for most of its existence since the late 1950s – a high school with a junior high school. For its sixth through eighth graders, it is a logical stepping stone to high school life.
“They are very quick and very bright and very funny and they are really excited to have some ownership over the school,” Ramsey said of the eighth graders he encountered. “And they have passionate pride about the place they get to call high school.”