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 became the first chief of schools for Shelby County Schools in January 2017.

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.

Young Voice

A Detroit high schooler is among 13 young adults steering two national student protests against gun violence

Detroiter Alondra Alvarez is standing up for gun control

Among the 13 teens and young adults spearheading two nationwide student protests against gun violence is a Detroit high schooler who says guns have created fear in her neighborhood.

Alondra Alvarez, a senior at Detroit’s Western International High School, is on the steering committee for two student walkouts being planned in response to last week’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The March 14 Women’s March Youth EMPOWER Walkout will last 17 minutes to symbolize the 17 lives cut short in that shooting, while a full-day walkout on April 20 will commemorate the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting.

Alvarez, who says she once considered herself a “shy Latina girl,” has become a fierce warrior for young people in Detroit and beyond. She spoke at the Women’s Convention in Detroit last October and has since stayed involved in the youth initiative of the Women’s March, launched last year to resist the Trump administration.

Chalkbeat talked to Alvarez about how gun violence affects her and her city, what sets her apart from the other organizers, and the message she wants to relay.

What’s it like to be selected to be a youth leader representing Detroit for the walkout?

I feel really honored. Of the Women’s March Youth, I’m the only Latina and the only person representing Detroit. A lot of times youth in Detroit are not really represented. I feel if I represent my community, then that will help other people want to get involved. I’m a person of color, and we share similar experiences. We know how gun violence influences our community, and we know it affects us. Since I’m involved, that will make other people who look like me want to get involved.

How do you believe gun violence affects Detroit?

It makes it really unsafe. I know every night, gunshots are fired around my neighborhood. It made me fear my neighborhood growing up, and I wouldn’t go out late at night. It shouldn’t be like that. We should be able to walk around our neighborhood at night or anytime and not have that fear.

The walkout will be held one month after the Parkland school shooting, a place where many people assumed such an incident could never happen. How do you feel Detroit is different than a city like Parkland?

Detroit is different because most of us are aware random shootings can happen. We are aware of our surroundings, so we check all students to make sure something like that doesn’t go down. At school, we all get checked because there are metal detectors. So there are less chances of something like that happening. I don’t want to say something like that couldn’t happen, but metal detectors lower the chances of somebody shooting up the school. It makes us feel safer.  

How does it make you feel to be a youth leader and a voice against gun violence?

It actually makes me feel really good. I don’t do it for myself. I do it for the youth in my community. It’s a really good feeling. I do it for the youth in my community because there’s a lack of resources that I’ve seen. The system is not meant for people of color, and it’s made me go out of my way to be a role model for people, to be involved with higher education and seek change. I want to help youth know that even though the system is not for you, you can overcome that and be whatever you want to be in life.

What message do you plan to relay during the walkout?

I came up with a quote this week, and it’s called “Another Bullet, Another Life.” We can’t control bullets, but we can fight for gun control because the gun violence is getting out of hand. All these school shootings are happening, and with gun control we can avoid some of these issues.

How did the news of the Parkland, Florida, shooting personally affect you?

It was really devastating. It was Valentine’s Day, the day people like to show affection. I can’t imagine losing a brother, sister or son or someone close to me on that day… Knowing it was the 18th school shooting this year — that’s just crazy, and we’re not doing anything to control it. It really breaks my heart.

Movers & shakers

Former education leaders spearhead new Memphis group to zero in on poverty

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Klondike-Smokey City is the first Memphis neighborhood targeted by Whole Child Strategies to coordinate the fight against poverty.

In a “big small town” like Memphis, neighborhoods are a source of pride and strength for residents in one of the poorest cities in America.

Natalie McKinney

Now, a new Memphis nonprofit organization is seeking to address poverty by coordinating the work of neighborhood schools, businesses, churches, and community groups.

Natalie McKinney is executive director of Whole Child Strategies, created last fall to help neighborhood and community leaders chart their own paths for decreasing poverty, which also would increase student achievement.

“There’s a lot of people ‘collaborating’ but not a lot of coordination toward a shared goal,” said McKinney, a former policy director for Shelby County Schools.

McKinney doesn’t want to “reinvent the wheel” on community development. However, she does want to provide logistical resources for analyzing data, facilitating meetings, and coordinating public advocacy for impoverished Memphis neighborhoods through existing or emerging neighborhood councils.

“Poverty looks different in different areas,” she said, citing varying levels of parent education, transportation, jobs and wages, and access to mental health services. “When we get down and figure out what is really going on and really dealing with the root cause for that particular community, that’s the work that the neighborhood council is doing.”

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Luther Mercer

Her team includes Luther Mercer, former Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center, and Rychetta Watkins, who recently led the Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Mid-South, along with Courtney Thomas, Elizabeth Mitchell, and Tenice Hardaway.

Whole Child Strategies is supported by an anonymous donor and also plans to raise more funds, according to McKinney.

The first neighborhood to receive a grant from the nonprofit is Klondike-Smokey City, which includes a mix of schools run by both Shelby County Schools and Tennessee’s Achievement School District. The group is drilling down to find out why students in those schools are missing school days, which will include a look at student suspensions.

At the community level, Whole Child Strategies has canvassed Agape Child & Family Services, Communities in Schools, City Year, Family Safety Center, Klondike Smokey City Community Development Corp., Mid-South Peace & Justice Center, and Seeding Success for ideas to increase transportation, reduce crime, and provide more mental health services.

For example, Family Safety Center, which serves domestic abuse survivors, now has a presence in schools in the Klondike-Smokey City community. McKinney said that’s the kind of coordination she hopes Whole Child Strategies can foster.

One need that already is apparent is for a community-wide calendar so that meetings do not overlap and organizations can strategize together, said Quincey Morris, executive director of the Klondike Smokey City Community Development Corp.

“I think like any new thing, you have to crawl first,” Morris said. “And I think the more that the community is informed about the whole child strategy, the more that we involve parents and community residents, I think it will grow.”