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/Chalkbeat
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.

election 2019

Chicago mayoral hopefuls agree on much, vow to invest in schools

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel / Chalkbeat
Five mayoral candidates invited to a labor forum on Nov. 19, 2018, discussed the exodus of black families from Chicago.

The five candidates for Chicago mayor who appeared at a labor union forum Monday night all pledged to invest more in neighborhood schools, despite an enrollment crisis that has left some with fewer than 100 students.

All five all also said the city should invest more in mental health services, especially for youth and in schools.

While the union-backed forum focused on the exodus of black residents from Chicago, education found its way into the conversation. After all, the troubling trend of fleeing families has caused school enrollments to plunge, budgets to shrink and schools to close.

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Gates said at the top of the event that, besides no booing, there’d be little tolerance for continuing “to talk about how to close schools in the city.”

The five mayoral contenders whom the union invited Monday night — out of 18 declared mayoral candidates — included former schools chief Paul Vallas, ex-prosecutor Lori Lightfoot, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza and policy analyst Amara Enyia, director of the Austin Chamber of Commerce.

Each promised in one way or another that they’d unify a city they painted as unequal and segregated, starting with stemming the daily toll of violence and improving public education.

Preckwinkle touted her bonafides as a former high school teacher who understands the challenges educators face, and said she’d focus on supporting local schools as she did in her 20 years as alderman.

“I want all of our children to have good public schools in their neighborhoods,” she said, adding that too many schools are underfunded or have been closed in many areas.

Mendoza, the latest candidate to enter the race, said she supports a two-year moratorium on school closings and boasted of her efforts in the state capitol pushing Gov. Bruce Rauner on “evidence based school funding,” which determines the cost of educating students based on certain factors, considers school districts’ resources, and tries filling the gap with state dollars.

Lightfoot emphasized preventing violence and looking at its impact on children in Chicago. She cast Emanuel as “a mayor who has learned on the job in dealing with public safety,” and touted her experience cracking down on police misconduct, an issue that has galvanized black youth.

Vallas characterized himself as someone who has devoted his life to public service, from his time in Chicago to stints running school districts in Philadelphia and in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina. He bashed the current mayor for the city’s financial state, escalating violence that Valles tied to shortages in police, especially detectives, and lack of investment in communities.

Amara Enyia emphasized her work fighting school closings, including the National Teachers’ Academy, a top-rated elementary school that is slated to close at the end of the year to make way for a high school, and her support of the No Cop Academy movement led by youth activists like Good Kids Madd City.

The candidates cited everything from crime and lack of jobs to uneven economic development and a lack of affordable housing as reasons why Chicago is losing population. They agreed on a lot, generally speaking, including the need to get the city’s fiscal house in order, create more jobs and reduce violence, deploring a shooting at a South Side hospital several hours earlier that left four dead.

On education, the candidates offered different paths for improving Chicago Public Schools’ financial stability. Preckwinkle said she supports a progressive state income tax, which she said could help produce more revenue that could help public schools. Vallas said reforming the teachers retirement system could free up more funds.

Enyia, who said black Chicagoans have been encouraged to leave the city because of a lack of affordable housing and economic investment, said she would press the philanthropic community to invest more in black and brown communities, and push initiatives to train people in the jobs of tomorrow.

“In our public schools we have to invest in those school career technical education and training programs,” she said, a point also made by Lightfoot.

Enyia charged that the school district doesn’t consider equity in its capital projects and program investments, and said “without an equity lens we cannot ensure every child has access to a high-quality education.” She said she would review how practices such as test-in high schools and school boundary lines entrench segregation and racial inequity.

Vallas tried to portray himself as the most fiscally astute candidate when it comes to schools, saying he left the district in a better financial state after his 1995 to 2001 stints. He suggested that the city do a better job of recruiting police who attended Chicago public schools, especially ROTC alumni, so that more police come from communities they serve. He advocated for universal prenatal and early childhood programs.

Preckwinkle was the only candidate to explicitly support an elected school board. She also said she would freeze charters and school closings, and seek more funds to support professionals in schools.

The mayor’s office wields broad powers over city departments and agencies, especially schools. The mayor appoints the schools chief and members of the Chicago Board of Education, which begs the question of whether or not schools CEO Janice Jackson, board President Frank Clark, and other district leaders will keep their jobs once city government gets a new boss.

That didn’t come up at the forum.

The right stuff

Who will be Tennessee’s next education chief? Gov.-elect Bill Lee is getting lots of advice

PHOTO: TN.gov
As outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam looks on, Gov.-elect Bill Lee speaks at the state Capitol the day after being elected the 50th governor of Tennessee. His 75-day transition will end with his inauguration on Jan. 19.

The changing of the guard that’s coming to the Tennessee governor’s office will now definitely come also to the department overseeing state education policy.

Candice McQueen took herself out of the running to continue as education commissioner with last week’s announcement that she’ll transition in January to a new job as CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.

While it was unlikely she would have stayed on permanently given the challenges with testing during her four-year tenure, McQueen’s planned departure cleans the slate for Gov.-elect Bill Lee to start fresh in finding the right fit to lead his vision for Tennessee schools.

The Republican businessman faces lots of choices in making one of the most important picks of his 23-member cabinet: Homegrown talent or a national search? Classroom teaching experience or workforce expertise? A quick hire or an extended search?

And he’s been getting a lot of advice.

From advocacy and philanthropic groups to the higher education and business communities, Tennessee has a large number of partners and stakeholders who care deeply about continuing the state’s momentum to improve student achievement.

“We believe that decisions made around talent and who is going to be working on education — either in the governor’s office or state Department of Education — are some of the most important decisions that the next governor will make,” said David Mansouri, president of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, or SCORE, a nonprofit group that works closely with the education department.

“We’re looking for someone who’s going to hold the line on the school accountability framework that the state has worked so hard to build,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, a leader with Conexión Américas, which advocates for Latino families in Nashville. “We want to keep up the urgency around improving performance of different student groups and making sure that we are bringing up all kids.”

Transition period

Since winning the election on Nov. 6, Lee has huddled with a small team of advisers in a windowless office at the state Capitol to plan the transition to a new administration, including sorting through about 600 resumes submitted for various jobs in all departments.

Transition spokeswoman Laine Arnold said the plan is to have the full cabinet in place by Lee’s Jan. 19 inauguration. But, she added, “we will be open to extending this process if needed.”

Lee’s pick for schools chief is considered key — and not just because the governor-elect made education a priority on the campaign trail, including a frequent call for stronger career and technical education.

The new commissioner eventually will manage a department of more than 600 employees overseeing a public school system for about a million students, 78,000 certified educators, and $6 billion in school funding.

And because Congress voted to cede much control over K-12 policy to state officials under a 2015 federal law, the commissioner plays an even larger role than in decades past.

Homegrown vs. national

Because of the high stakes, groups like SCORE are urging Lee to cast a wide net in his search for a successor to McQueen.

“We should aspire to have best-in-class and best-in-the-nation talent, just like we’ve had the last 10 years,” said Mansouri. “That may mean the person is from Tennessee, or from somewhere else.”

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen was one of Gov. Bill Haslam’s most visible cabinet members.

Other groups emphasize the value of being familiar with Tennessee schools.

“As an organization comprised of school district leaders, we believe it would be an advantage for a state commissioner of education to have experience both in the classroom and as a public school system leader in Tennessee,” said Dale Lynch, executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

Adds Beth Brown, president of the Tennessee Education Association: “The next commissioner should have a practical understanding of what goes on in our public schools. Having that kind of leader in place will go a long way to restoring teachers’ confidence in our Department of Education.”

Last handoff

When Republican Bill Haslam took the baton from Democrat Phil Bredesen in 2011 in the last gubernatorial handoff, he conducted a national search before plucking Kevin Huffman from the ranks of the education reform movement as his point person on schools.

A lawyer who was an executive with Teach For America in Washington, D.C., Huffman was tasked with managing Tennessee’s just-approved overhaul of K-12 schools as part of its $500 million federal Race to the Top award. The Obama-era competition had incentivized states to adopt shared academic standards, improve its lowest-performing schools, measure students’ growth over time, and design policies to reward and retain top teachers.

State education commissioner Kevin Huffman.
PHOTO: TN.gov
Kevin Huffman was Tennessee’s education commissioner from 2011 to 2014.

A polarizing leader, Huffman left after three years of clashing with teacher groups, district leaders, and state lawmakers over policies ranging from teacher licensing and evaluations to charter schools and Common Core.

Haslam then turned to McQueen, a native of Clarksville, Tenn., former teacher, and respected dean of education at Nashville’s Lipscomb University.

“She was a kinder, gentler Kevin Huffman,” said Dan Lawson, long-time school superintendent in Tullahoma. “They shared the same political agenda and underpinning, but Candice was able to deliver it in a smoother, less abrasive fashion.”

McQueen held the rudder steady on the state’s new roadmap, plus bolstered supports for teachers, tweaked school turnaround strategies, and launched a major reading initiative. But ongoing fumbles delivering a state test took their toll.

Interim or not

The complexities of education policy, including Tennessee’s pioneering changes over the last decade, are why SCORE leaders hope that Lee doesn’t rush to make a hire.

“We think that having a thoughtful approach that looks for the best in the nation is the right one,” said Mansouri. “If that takes time, that’s OK. It’s about getting the right person.”

There’s precedent here.

Before Haslam hired Huffman several months after taking office, he leaned on acting commissioner Patrick Smith, who had led the state’s Race to the Top oversight team under Bredesen.

Other groups agree that a thorough search is in order.

“My sense is that the Lee administration will look for top talent and let quality drive their hiring decisions. But having some ties to Tennessee will be a huge bonus,” said Shaka Miller, state director of the American Federation for Children, a group that Lee has supported and that backs a “school choice” agenda, including charter schools and voucher-like programs.

Qualities and qualifications

On the campaign trail, Lee pledged to hire the most talented and qualified people for his administration.

Arnold adds: “He’s looking for those who share his vision in making Tennessee a national leader, while also ensuring geographic and individual diversity.”

While she declined to discuss names, Lee has sought advice from two superintendents from West Tennessee — Dorsey Hopson in Shelby County and Marlon King in Fayette County — both of whom were on a 72-person campaign list of Tennesseans who supported or advised him on education.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Dorsey Hopson is superintendent of Shelby County Schools, Tennessee’s largest district.

Hopson’s backing of the millionaire Republican candidate from affluent suburban Williamson County raised eyebrows — and some fury — among his mostly urban Democratic district in Memphis, which has the state’s highest share of impoverished students.

Hopson told Chalkbeat at the time that he was “not angling for a job,” but rather that he and Lee had developed a mutual respect while getting to know each during the last year and a half.

“We routinely discussed faith, family, government, and education issues,” said Hopson, a lawyer who has headed Tennessee’s largest district since 2013. “I appreciated the thoughtful and humble way that he sought my input.”

Asked last week about Hopson, Lee told Memphis TV station Local 24 News that he hadn’t spoken with the superintendent specifically about his administration but added: “He has a role. We talk. We’ve become friends. I have a great deal of respect for his expertise.”

Hopson would have to take a pay cut, however, if Lee offered and he accepted the commissioner’s job. As superintendent, he makes $285,000 a year. The salary for the state’s education chief is $200,000.