Marjorie Murray, Director of the East Coast Technical Assistance Center since 2010, has administered Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) programs at both the state and local levels. In her 23 years with the Florida Department of Education, Ms. Murray worked in various capacities, including Field Service Director, where she was responsible for the services of five regional offices that provided technical assistance in the development and implementation of ESEA programs to all Florida local education agencies (LEAs). For the past 24 years, she has been an LEA administrator in a school district in central Florida which has 68,000 students.
Start by telling me a little about yourself!
Well, this is my actually 51st year in education! I originally was going to be a nurse, but the University of South Florida didn’t have a nursing program, and I didn’t want to move further away from home to find the nursing program. So, I went into Exceptional Student Education (ESE) because I considered it to be a similar field where I still get to help children.
So, I did. I taught for 4 years in a school district in Florida, and I loved it–I absolutely loved it. My first years were teaching in a center for very disadvantaged children who were really only there because of economic disadvantages rather than intellectual. I learned a lot through that. We turned around the culture of the center. We got the kids into the Kennedy Special Olympics. We started intermural sports, cheerleading, home economic programs–all the things that those children never had. What I learned from those years of teaching is that every child can learn–you just have to find the right way, the right passion for the job, the right modality for teaching, and never give up. There are many paths and avenues involved. I learned that you can’t do it alone in education. It takes a very meaningful partnership with parents because they’re with the children a lot more than we are. Every parent, no matter what walk of life, what culture they live in, or what socioeconomic status, every parent wants their child to succeed. With the right kind of meaningful partnership, educators and parents can work together towards success.
Beyond my teaching years, I’ve spent 47 years in federal education programs. I’ve worked in regional technical assistance at both the state and local levels. When I first started working in federal programs, Florida had five centers for providing technical assistance from the state. I managed one of the regional offices, and then I was Director of Field Services, meaning I managed the administrators of the five regional offices. I then came to the local school district and served as Director of Special Projects for Title I and other similar programs.
While in this role, I managed the Voluntary Pre-K (VPK) program, which now includes one class in every elementary school, as well as a separate PreK Center. We have about 1,000 kids in the program now. I also developed a program for the Seminole County Public School District superintendent that we’re excited about called Great Start Pathways to Success. The program creates a presence with the parents when the babies are first born. At the hospital, they receive materials from the school district, including things like a “Welcome to the World” packet and information on the importance of reading to your child at least 30 minutes a day. We stress that no matter what education path you choose–public, private–we care about you because you’re part of our community, and we want to be here for you. There are books included along with a developmental calendar about what to expect developmentally and tips on how parents can support their children through that developmental process. The best part is the bib included that says, “Graduating Class of…” 2035, 2036, whatever it is. They look at it and say, “We haven’t even left the hospital, and we’re talking about graduation?!”
The program follows up into play groups in all aspects of the community where the parents can come and engage in the community before their kids start kindergarten.
Currently, I am the director of a technical assistance center called ECTAC. It’s an acronym for East Coast Technical Assistance Center. Right now, we provide technical assistance to 47 school districts, and if you know anything about Florida, we’re one of those states where our school districts are really our counties. So, we are looking at some of the largest school districts in the country.
Can you tell me more about the technical assistance you provide?
The center exists for the purpose of networking and technical assistance, and we make it very clear that we’re not the Department of Education. We are a network of their peers. We really try to say, “Here’s what I would do if I were sitting at your desk; you know, let’s analyze something together.” It doesn’t matter if you’ve been in education programs for 40 years or for 15 minutes. It’s still a learning curve every day. One person cannot know everything, but collectively, we can figure it out. So that’s a lot of what we do!
How has COVID affected that networking process for you?
We just had a virtual meeting last week which was supposed to be face-to-face, but due to COVID, we had to shift to a virtual format. Technical assistance in the COVID era is interesting. The downside is, we’re not able to be face-to-face and have our sidebar conversations. The upside is, you can really get access to more people and a lot quicker through platforms like Zoom and Teams. I even give my cell phone number out so that people can reach me outside of the workweek when they have a moment of clarity. A question or solution may come up, and they are encouraged to reach out to me.
Wow, that’s dedication to your work.
When you enjoy your work, you never work a day in your life. Every day, you’re putting pieces of puzzles together for people, helping them respond or react to something. No two days are ever the same. For example, one of the projects we do over here that I’m really excited about is a project called Exceeding Expectations. We grab this school grade database when the state releases all the test information, and with a team of very accomplished evaluators throughout our network of school districts, we slice and dice and filter that data against our definition of what it means to exceed expectations. The school must be receiving Title I resources to be in the project, but you are literally compared with every school in the state because we establish state medians. So, we filter the data against those medians in areas of math, English language arts, and more. And then we pick out the schools that rise to the top.
So, we visit those schools with teams from our school districts, and we go and spend one full day in the school and walk every classroom. We meet with groups of teachers and administrators, and we are literally there to say, “We’re putting together a patchwork quilt. We started the day with a piece of data; that’s all. And we’re here to see what you are doing to achieve that data.” At the end of the day, we have this patchwork quilt to validate why they got this result, and we invite them to be an award school.
The project culminates in a conference to celebrate and share the awards. At our last in-person event, we had 529 attendees. The guests are people from those award schools and then non-award schools wanting to come and learn. It’s a day and a half process that starts in the morning with a kickoff on the keynote stage, and then it goes into breakout sessions all day long. Each award school has the responsibility of presenting twice.
At night, it is literally a banquet with red carpet service. There’s a wonderful dinner, and then their names are called. They come up on the stage and receive both a plaque for the school and a portable award along with a check from the program sponsors.
Can you share some of the standout strategies that you see in these award schools?
I think there’s probably a good three or four things that stand out almost every year: Obviously leadership, but it’s more of a shared leadership because if the leader is gone, that attitude and stamina must be embedded in the culture of the school. It’s about every teacher being responsible for every student. It’s about teachers collaborating and helping each other so that they are looking at the data together and sharing effective strategies with each other. Another important factor is having meaningful relationships with students. You know, even just standing outside the door to welcome them. You may be the first friendly face they see. The bus drivers, cafeteria workers are all part of that culture and climate as well. Everyone has to buy in to the success of the students. Lastly, these award schools have effective interventions in place that will not let children fall through the cracks. They’ve figured out the best ways to implement these interventions as well.
Is this information available publicly for schools outside of these districts?
Yes! If you visit our website, you will see the criteria for the program along with the presentations from previous years.
Photo of Marjorie Murray (2021)