A year ago, Sharon Griffin assumed the leadership of the Shelby County Schools with a pledge to address a problem she had seen fester during her years as a teacher and administrator in the district.

The lack of on-the-ground engagement by the “central office” had created a disconnect — both real and perceived — between the schools and district headquarters on Hollywood Street. That had led to a weary reaction to new district initiatives, with many teachers and administrators skeptical of ideas that sounded good but were not accompanied by central office support to carry them out effectively.

Griffin’s efforts to bridge that gap was a major theme of her first year, as she adopted a host of measures to help central office become more responsive to needs of schools rather than imposing top-down mandates.

She required top district leaders to take weekly school tours, held dozens of listening sessions as her team crafted the district’s first academic plan in years, and purchased only resources schools said they needed, not what central office leaders thought might be good for schools.

Griffin has also overseen massive changes in curriculum and professional development to include more responsiveness to what teachers say they need.

“The successes of our schools really depends on everybody, and particular those of us at central office, moving in the direction of supporting schools,” she said. “We would not exist if it weren’t for schools.”

A former teacher, principal and chief of the Innovation Zone, the school system’s turnaround program, Griffin came to her new job with several mantras, now familiar to staff, the school board and even parents.

“You either teach students or support those who do,” she often tells central office staff who may be losing focus.

“People don’t quit schools. They quit because they’re not supported,” she tells those worried about teacher morale.

And she often compares her office’s role to making cake, with her academic team providing the “batter” in the form of a uniform and rigorous curriculum that aligns with TNReady, the state test students will take every spring.

The schools, she says, can provide the form and other ingredients.

“They’ve taken the curriculum and made it fit the particular needs of their students,” she said of the schools that have made the most gains in the past year. “They haven’t deviated from it. They’ve just made it fit them. We call that adding peanuts, M&Ms, acorns, whatever you like.”

Sharon Griffin confers with a principal coach at Egypt Elementary School in December.
PHOTO CREDIT: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

At the school level, many say, there’s still a long way to go overcome the communication gaps that Griffin inherited.

“A lot of things going on in the district right now are residue from leaders that came before,” said Tonya Miller-Harvey, a 10-year principal at Sherwood Elementary.

But, Miller-Harvey said, Griffin “has a working knowledge of what turnaround schools need to be successful. … She’s giving principals the resources they need to be successful.”

Tikeila Rucker, the president of the United Education Association of Shelby County, said trust remains a problem. When teacher coaches began coming into classrooms more often, she said, it was hard for many to believe the observations wouldn’t be used punitively.

“I don’t believe it’s effective because there’s such a low level of trust,” she said. “So, people don’t feel like they can say what they need.”

“We have to rebuild the morale and the trust,” Rucker said.

For Griffin, the year was not free of setbacks. The district has made academic gains in recent years, but public trust of the district’s success and its overall direction was undermined with a grade-change scandal.

An independent investigation found a pervasive culture of improper grade changes at Trezevant High School, which is part of the iZone that Griffin had led from its start in 2012. The second school implicated, Hamilton High, was also an iZone school.

The revelation added a new challenge to Griffin’s agenda. She said she has been working on a proposal to change the process of giving students the opportunity to redeem their grade, by expanding the use of online recovery or assignments. She said she believes that with the right supports in place, there will be less pressure on teachers to pass along a student.

“We’re talking about being as specific as even when you fail one test, what can we do immediately? We’re not waiting until you fail the course,” she said.

Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin speaks at a panel event in November hosted by Stand for Children.
PHOTO CREDIT: Stand for Children

Schools now have a designated leader in math, history, science, and language arts. To give teachers more ownership over what they will be doing in their classroom, at least one faculty meeting each month has been replaced with “collaborative planning” for teachers to practice lessons and give feedback — a central tenet of the iZone’s success. Griffin’s team has also worked to identify teachers who have mastered the curriculum and pay them a stipend to teach others, in person or online.

“What we’re trying to do is build capacity within schools so that people are not waiting for us at the district level to always come out and support teachers in a coaching model where I may not touch you except for every two weeks,” Griffin said. “You’ve got a person in the building every day on the ground that’s going to help you master this high-quality content curriculum.”

Griffin also divided the district into 18 zones so that teachers can sidestep the former top-heavy imposition of professional development and instead work in smaller groups to request the type of professional training they feel they need.

Still, the challenge for teachers is enormous. About 21 percent of third graders read on grade level under the more rigorous state standards, down from 30 percent in 2015 when Shelby County Schools unveiled its ambitious goals for Destination 2025. The district’s average ACT score is 17.8, about three points lower than what is considered the college-ready threshold.

Griffin said she is acutely aware that students come to school everyday bearing burdens that are rooted in poverty, deprivation and even tragedy, and can’t easily be can’t be countered with teaching alone.

She said that message was driven home on the last day of winter break when she and her deputy Monica Jordan met at central office, hoping to work on the district’s academic plan free of distractions.

Just one other car was in the expansive parking lot, she said: two grandparents who were taking care of their grandson, whose mother was recently killed. He hadn’t been enrolled in school and they needed to sort out custody paperwork.

“‘We don’t know anywhere else to go except to the school,’” Griffin recalled them saying. “What that was for me was a prime example that, regardless of what has happened in the community, the school is a known refuge where we have to build a support system for our kids.”

She said she considers other supports essential to the overall academic plan, such as teaching educators how to interact with children who come from low-income families or who may have traumatic experiences that affect their behavior. In iZone schools, which also have higher than average rates of students from low-income families, that has meant more practical resources like food and closets where students can be provided with uniforms too.

“There’s still an underlying message that the social and emotional supports and needs of our students have to be met or our students won’t be able to sustain the academic gains,” Griffin said. “That’s just a very real part of our story. It’s just where we are.”

Veronica Aldridge, a school counselor at Willow Oaks Elementary School, said Griffin has shown she is willing to engage with those on the front lines.

“She’s worked alongside us,” Aldridge said.