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.

Movers and shakers

Success Academy COO leaving for another charter network

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Success Academy hosts its annual "Slam the Exam" rally at the Barclays Center.

A top official at New York City’s largest charter network is leaving for another network, Success Academy officials confirmed Monday.

Kris Cheung, the chief operating officer at Success Academy, is headed to Texas for an operations job at KIPP. Rob Price, Success’s chief financial officer, is also leaving his post. The moves were first reported by Gothamist.

“As Success scales to 100 schools, we have hired several new leaders this past year — general counsel, chief of technology and head of leadership and human resources,” Success spokeswoman Ann Powell said. “While Kris Cheung, who has spent seven years with Success, is leaving to work in Texas for another charter network, Rob Price will continue as a consultant.”

Cheung was promoted to oversee operations in the shake-up that followed a 2015 school-supply fiasco required network staff to work nights and weekend days sorting boxes and furniture on Long Island.

The moves leave the network, which has ambitions to grow to 100 schools, with key positions to fill. Dan Loeb, Success’s board chair, also stepped down recently (and was replaced by Steven Galbraith); founder Eva Moskowitz lost another key ally in Emily Kim, the network’s former top lawyer, in 2017.

The city’s 46 Success Academy schools are known for their high test scores, strict discipline, Moskowitz’s fights with Mayor Bill de Blasio, and controversies around pushing out students and a much-publicized video showing a teacher ripping student work.

KIPP spokesman Steve Mancini said Cheung’s precise role is still being decided. That network’s well-known co-founder, Mike Feinberg, was fired in February after a sexual misconduct investigation.

One year in

A year after Nikolai Vitti arrived in Detroit, a look back at his application shows what’s changed

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti interviewed for the job on March 30, 2017.

Next week will mark a full year since Superintendent Nikolai Vitti arrived in Detroit, taking on one of the most daunting jobs in American education.

As leader of the state’s largest district, he faced a long list of challenges: hundreds of vacant teaching positions, deteriorating buildings, dismal test scores, a total lack of systems for finances and hiring — the legacy, Vitti says, of the state-appointed emergency managers who ran the district for years before his arrival.

One year later, it remains to be seen whether Vitti will be able deliver the hopeful turnaround he promised in his 27-page application. It’s far too soon to look for real signs of progress — like higher test scores — because major changes to schools like a new curriculum won’t be implemented until next school year. But enrollment is up slightly, budgets have been balanced, and teacher salaries are on the rise.

Below, we return to his application — his blueprint for the district — to mark the things that have happened, the plans that have been made, and the work still left to do.

Click on the highlighted text to compare Vitti’s words with his actions and read our coverage of his first year in the district.

Candidate File for Nikolai Vitti



Superintendent Search


Please accept this letter as my official application to serve as the superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD), I am applying for this extraordinary challenge and opportunity because of my deep and unwavering belief in urban public education and my love for my home city of Detroit. The city’s voters have demanded and received an elected School Board, The School Board’s success will rest upon its decision to select the right leader who has the vision, track record, experience, commitment, strength, and perseverance for the job. I believe that I am that leader who is ready to collaboratively own the success of DPSCD’s future with the Board,

I offer the Board a child-centric and seemingly outside, objective perspective of how we can build the district into the best urban school district in the nation, while simultaneously doing that work with the empathy and sensitivities of a Detroiter. Growing up in Metro Detroit, my family and I have directly experienced the challenges of immigration, single motherhood, teenage pregnancy, unemployment, alcoholism, and foreclosures. My immediate and extended family represents the spirit and diversity of Detroit as we are a collection of ethnic Whites, African-Americans, Latinos, Whites, and Arab-Americans. From delivering the Detroit Free Press at 5 a.m. or parking cars on Michigan Avenue for the Tigers’ game to supplement our family’s income, to my grandmother working for Ford as an hourly cashier or my grandparents and father working in the factory at the River Rouge plant, to my mother earning her GED after dropping out of high school as a teenage mother and working to this day as a hairdresser, to my father eventually graduating from Wayne State University or my family running a pizzeria, Detroit is in my blood and I am eager to return home and serve the city.

An unbridled passion and drive to catch up to my peers, along with the work ethic and pride of my family, led me to focus my college experience exclusively on reading, studying, and writing to better understand myself and the world. Despite struggling through my K-12 experience due to undiagnosed dyslexia and a family home structure that did not always feel comfortable advocating for academic excellence, I quickly realized that my college education was a vehicle to my own self-actualization and empowerment. It was there where I also reunited with my father. However, empowerment did not mean more for myself, it meant building my capacity and confidence to empower others. After considering law, medicine, and even film, I decided that the greatest vehicle for social justice and transformation, at scale, was public education. I began that work as a teacher and eventually as a superintendent to assume greater responsibility and ownership for the learning environments that all of our children deserve.

Traditional public education is at a perceived crisis, whether that crisis is truly legitimate or exaggerated for political and ideological reasons, we must conduct our work with greater strategy, efficiency, and transparency in order to produce stronger outcomes. I offer the Board and community an expansive track record of success with transforming some of the most challenged learning environments at the classroom, school, district, and state levels that mirror those in Detroit. This work has occurred as a practitioner in the Bronx, Miami, in several urban communities in Florida, and most recently in Jacksonville, FL. I have only served in traditional public schools because of my deep belief that this is where our work is most important. The only way our nation can meet its professed ethos of equal opportunity is to ensure a strong public education system is ever present. Detroit can only restore its greatness with a strong public school system.

My initial contract in Jacksonville was from November, 2012 to June, 2016. It was renewed early on a 7-0 School Board vote for a three year extension. I am in the first year of that three year extension. I admit that our work in Jacksonville is incomplete but at the same time I can confidently state that I will leave the district in a better place than I assumed it four years ago. This is evidenced through historic achievement levels and improvement in graduation rates, the National Assessment in Educational Progress (NAEP), district grade, and post-secondary readiness among several other indicators.

Four years ago Duval County was seven percentage points from the state average, today it is nearly one percentage point away with an improvement of over Ti percentage points. Today our African-American graduation rate leads all large urban school districts in Florida, our achievement gap between White and African-American students is the narrowest in reading, math, and Algebra among the largest districts in Florida and one of the narrowest among the largest districts in the nation according to NAEP. We have increased post-secondary college readiness in reading by 11 percentage points from 73% to 84%, and a 17 percentage points in math from 55% to 72%. African-American post-secondary readiness for reading has improved from 67% to 81%, and in mathematics from 39% to 66% over the past four years. We have been a “B” district for consecutive years for the first time in years. The performance of nearly all groups of students have improved in the vast majority state assessments after the second year of new standards, and performance is due to improve again this year based on mid-year internal assessments.

I would leave Duval County with an infrastructure that has been solidified in the areas of technology, blended learning, budget alignment to a Strategic Plan, art and music programming, data systems, curriculum selection and adoption for the new standards, school programming with an emphasis on STEM, accelerated courses, and Career Academies, leadership development at the school and district level, alternative and over-age schools, schools avoiding state sanction, redesign of low enrolled and struggling schools, and the concentration of stronger leaders and teachers in struggling schools.

I apply for this position knowing that I am returning home and that the School Board and community need leadership sustainability. I have been asked to apply to several superintendent positions, charter networks, and private companies over the years; Jacksonville was the only district in which I applied for my first superintendency and I am now only applying for this opportunity. I fully embrace and would only request a long-term commitment with the School Board to begin the problem solving process to improve the school district.

The School Board is seeking a leader with the capacity, confidence, and experience to work with the State and local communities to turnaround lower performing schools. I have demonstrated this ability as a teacher, principal, assistant superintendent, chief academic officer, state administrator, and superintendent in several large urban school districts throughout the country. As a cabinet member who served three National Superintendents of the Year and as an essential member of a district team that won the Broad Prize in Educational Excellence while being highlighted for turnaround work by the USDOE and FLDOE, I will be able to provide the State of Michigan with the assurance that we can be trusted to improve student achievement and ensure financial transparency. We will regain the right to govern our school district independently.

I envision a school district where all students are college ready or well prepared for high level employment. This will occur because our students will learn to be critical thinkers, problem solvers, and leaders. We will support and develop our current and future leaders and teachers, and support them with the right tools, curriculum and data systems, and wraparound services to address our students’ socioemotional challenges. Our students will experience the expansion and exposure of an arts education while gaining a greater appreciation for their culture and community. We will expand business partnerships for internships, while building the capacity of our parents and respecting their voice. Our students will be safe and learn through their mistakes by ensuring a progressive discipline model. We will restore the confidence of parents and their children who will return from charter and private schools.

The resurgence of Detroit is underway. As a School Board and superintendent team we will accelerate that progress and ensure its success.

Read Vitti’s full application, including his resume and references, in the document below.