Movers and Shakers

How ‘central office’ in Memphis is taking on a new meaning under Sharon Griffin

PHOTO: Yalonda M. James/The Commercial Appeal
Sharon Griffin was the first chief of schools for Shelby County Schools. Starting in May, she will be the next leader of Tennessee's state-run district.

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.”

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

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.

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

teachers on the ballot

Jahana Hayes, nation’s top teacher in 2016, may be headed to Congress after primary win

2016 National Teacher of the Year Jahana Hayes answers questions from reporters after being honored at the White House. (Photo by Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Jahana Hayes, the 2016 national teacher of the year, is one step closer to Congress.

Hayes, who would be the first black Democrat elected to Congress in the state, won the Democratic primary in Connecticut’s fifth district on Tuesday. Her bid is the most high-profile example of efforts by teachers across the country to win elected office this year, with many dissatisfied over their pay and education policies like evaluations and voucher programs.

In an interview with Chalkbeat in May, Hayes said she decided to run because she believes she can represent the interests of students like hers: “I kind of just had an epiphany, like, who’s going to speak for them?”

Hayes taught history and civics in Waterbury Public Schools, a largely low-income district. Her campaign has embraced her upbringing, including her past homelessness and teen pregnancy and her role as a teacher in the district she grew up in.

“Despite being surrounded by abject poverty, drugs and violence, my teachers made me believe that I was college material and planted a seed of hope,” she said.

Hayes faced Mary Glassman, who ran for lieutenant governor twice and worked at Capitol Region Education Council, which operates magnet schools in Hartford.

Hayes ran on a solidly progressive platform, embracing universal healthcare, free college, and a $15 minimum wage.

When it comes to education, though, she has been light on policy details. Asked about what specifically she’d hope to accomplish in Congress, Hayes told Chalkbeat, “I know that I can bring a perspective and knowledge and expertise in that area that is critical. If we start to dismantle public education now, I don’t know how we’ll ever rebuild it.”

On the hot-button issue of school choice, Hayes stumbled on a question about vouchers, appearing to confuse the concept with charter schools. Ultimately, she said, “A charter system can still be public and continue to support the public education system. I think as we increase the number of vouchers that are provided, it takes away from the public school system.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Hayes said she would work with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has been the focus of opposition for many teachers.

“I need for the secretary of education to be successful because if she’s successful that means kids are thriving,” Hayes said. “I would welcome the opportunity to work very closely with her, to share ideas, to just be at the table to give a different perspective, to give some insight into what is happening on the ground.”

To reach Congress, Hayes still must win the general election. Connecticut’s fifth district is the most competitive one in the state, according to Cook Political Report. Hillary Clinton won the district by 4 percentage points in 2016.

She will face Republican Manny Santos, a former mayor of Meriden, Connecticut.

Hayes was not the only teacher to win a primary bid on Tuesday. In Wisconsin, Tony Evers, the state’s school superintendent and a former teacher and principal, will face Scott Walker in the race for governor. And in Minnesota, Congressman Tim Walz, who was a high school geography teacher and football coach, won the Democratic governor’s primary.

Correction: A previous version of this story said that Hayes would be the first black person elected to Congress in Connecticut; in fact, she would be the first black Democrat.

Mended Fences

Despite earlier attack ads, Colorado teachers union endorses Jared Polis for governor

Congressman Jared Polis meets with teachers, parents and students at the Academy of Urban Learning in Denver after announcing his gubernatorial campaign. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado’s largest teachers union has endorsed Jared Polis, the Democratic candidate for governor.

The endorsement is not a surprise given that teachers unions have traditionally been associated with the Democratic Party. However, the 35,000-member Colorado Education Association had previously endorsed one of Polis’ rivals during the primary, former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy, and contributed money toward negative ads that portrayed Polis as a supporter of vouchers based on a 2003 op-ed, in spite of votes in Congress against voucher programs.

With the primary in the past, CEA President Amie Baca-Oehlert focused on Polis’ support for more school funding, a priority shared by the union.

“Our members share Jared’s concern that too many communities don’t have the resources they need for every child to succeed,” Baca-Oehlert said in the press release announcing the endorsement. “We have created ‘haves and have-nots’ among our children, and nowhere is that more apparent than with our youngest students who don’t receive the same level of quality early childhood education. Jared impressed us with his strong commitment to give all kids a great start and better prepare them for a successful lifetime of learning.”

Polis has made expanding access to preschool and funding full-day kindergarten a key part of his education platform, along with raising pay for teachers.

Polis is running against Republican Walker Stapleton. As state treasurer, Stapleton advocated for changes to the public employee retirement system, including freezes on benefits and cost-of-living raises, that were opposed by the teachers union, something Baca-Oehlert made note of in the endorsement of Polis.

Read more about the two candidates’ education positions here.