Superintendent search

‘I can’t wait to get started,’ says Sharon Griffin on leading Tennessee’s Achievement School District

Sharon Griffin, a longtime leader at Shelby County Schools, is the next leader of the state’s turnaround district.

Sharon Griffin, a longtime leader at Shelby County Schools, will be the next leader of the state’s turnaround district.

Griffin will take the helm of the Achievement School District in late May under the titles of Assistant Commissioner of School Turnaround and Chief of the Achievement School District. She will remain based in Memphis.

During a conference call Tuesday, Griffin said she felt the time was right to join the state-run district and broaden her focus to all low-performing schools, not just those in Memphis.

“My work has always been granting access to great education for all children,” Griffin said. “The outcomes in all priority schools, not just here in [Memphis] but across the state, is not acceptable for any of us. I want to find real ways to collaborate more and share all of the best practices in turnaround work.”

Griffin has been the chief of schools for Shelby County Schools since January 2017 and has been a teacher and leader in Memphis education for more than 25 years.

“The ASD is an important lever in turning around some of the state’s lowest performing schools,” Gov. Bill Haslam said. “Dr. Griffin has proven herself to be a strong leader, and I look forward to having her in this state-wide role.”

Griffin’s appointment follows the September resignation of Malika Anderson, the district’s second superintendent since it launched in 2012. Its vision is to transform Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools by taking over district schools and replacing them with charter organizations.

Griffin will make $180,000 a year in her new role — $10,000 less than Anderson did and about $12,000 more than what she was making with the Memphis district.

Griffin was not among the four superintendent candidates identified last month — though she was being considered by the state at that time, said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen during the Tuesday call. Griffin was selected, in part, due to her deep local credibility — something that people in Memphis had emphasized during one finalist visit.

“We needed someone with a unique background that would have knowledge of Memphis and the ability to look at statewide work,” McQueen said. “We ultimately decided Dr. Griffin is a person who embodies all of this — she’s the right leader at the right time.”

Griffin, a graduate of LeMoyne-Owen College and University of Memphis, has spent her entire career in Memphis schools. In 2012, after starting a turnaround program at Airways Middle School that had some success, she was promoted to lead the Innovation Zone, the district’s home-grown solution to low-performing schools.

The program has grown to more than 20 schools and has often been seen in contrast with the state’s turnaround schools.

Now, as leader of the state’s turnaround district, Griffin will oversee 30 schools — most run by charter organizations in Memphis — at a time when the achievement district has much less authority than when it launched in 2012.

The Achievement School District is considered a tool of last resort under the state’s new education plan unveiled last year. Under-enrollment continues to plague many of its schools and was a big factor in the decisions of four charter operators to close their schools or leave the district.

Assistant Superintendent Angela Whitelaw will replace Griffin at Shelby County Schools as the district looks for her replacement. The Memphis district has also been searching for a chief academic officer ever since Heidi Ramirez resigned in February 2017.

“The outstanding innovative turnaround work in our district continues to garner regional and national attention, so it’s no surprise that our team members are often sought after,” Shelby County Schools leaders said in a statement. “While we don’t want to lose her, we are supportive of her desire to reach her personal and professional goals of supporting students across our state.”

The Achievement School District has had very tenuous relationships with the local districts in Memphis and Nashville — sparring over enrollment, facilities, and sharing student contact information. Griffin said she has the right background to soften these relationships.

“I’m excited about the partnership and collaboration,” Griffin said. “It’s a critical role for us to bridge gaps that are happening across state and in Memphis. I can’t wait to get started.”

The decision was welcome news to Sarah Carpenter, the executive director of parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift.

“Her being a native Memphian, and already here, and already holding people accountable, I think she brings a lot to the table,” said Carpenter, who has students in the Achievement School District.

The state skirted its promised community input process for selecting Griffin as the next leader of the state-run district — due to Griffin’s high-profile district role — but that didn’t bother Carpenter.

“She believes that parents should be involved in every decision they make. Even in Shelby County she wanted parents at the table,” Carpenter said.

Mendell Grinter, the executive director of student advocacy training organization Campaign for School Equity, said the state-run district has been an “integral part of school transformation work in Memphis” and welcomed Griffin’s hiring.

“Dr. Griffin is a proven leader who no doubt has what it takes to lead our schools forward,” he said, adding she can build on the hard lessons the state has learned on the importance of community buy-in to improve schools.

Reporter Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report. 


Frustrations over principal turnover flare up at IPS School 43

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 43

It began with a tame slideshow presentation about hiring a new principal at School 43. But the Wednesday night meeting soon spiraled into a venting session — as parents and teachers pleaded with Indianapolis Public Schools to send in more staff.

Bakari Posey, the principal of School 43, departed for another job last week in the latest upheaval at the school, which is also known as James Whitcomb Riley. The assistant principal, Endia Ellison, has taken over in an interim capacity, as the district searches for a new leader for the school, which has faced significant turnover in recent years.

“This school needs help,” said Natasha Milam, who has three children at School 43, which serves about 450 students in prekindergarten to eighth-grade. “We need you all to listen. And we need you all to hear us.”

Milam, who volunteers at the school, said that because the building does not have enough staff to handle behavior problems, students are suspended far too often — meaning students are at home doing chores or getting into trouble, instead of in class learning.

Many in the neighborhood had hoped Posey, who is from the community, would be able to turn the school around after the previous two school leaders left their posts just months into the job. But under Posey’s leadership, the school continued to struggle on state tests, with just 7 percent of students passing both the math and English exams last year.

And after two-and-a-half years on the job, Posey left and began working this week as assistant principal at Fall Creek Valley Middle School in Lawrence Township. In an email Thursday, Posey said that he left because he thought the position in Lawrence would help him grow professionally and it was closer to his home.

Posey also disputed the picture of School 43 as a campus in crisis. He said this school year, there hasn’t been “turmoil in the school in regards to student behavior,” suspensions were down, and the campus has been “very calm.” (Suspension numbers could not immediately be verified.) He also said that Indianapolis Public Schools provided “great support” to school staff.

Nonetheless, parents and teachers’ at the meeting Wednesday said the school has serious problems.

Ryesha Jackson, a 4th-grade teacher who has been at the school a little over a year, said there are not enough staff to help with student discipline problems. That makes it hard for educators to teach, she said.

“We have fights almost every day,” Jackson said. “I guess my question is, ‘What are we doing right now to support teachers?’”

School 43 is a neighborhood school, on the north side of the district. More than 75 percent of students there are black, and almost 70 percent are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price meals — about the district average.

Indianapolis Public Schools interim Superintendent Aleesia Johnson said district and school leaders would work together to develop a plan to address the urgent problems at School 43.

“But what I can’t give you right now is the plan for that help,” she said. “That takes time and coordination with the school staff.”

The district is gathering input about what school community members are looking for in a principal before posting a listing, officials said. Finalists will be interviewed by committees of parents, community members, and school and district staff. The goal is to name a new principal by April.

Also at Wednesday’s meeting was a small contingent from the IPS Community Coalition, a group that is often critical of the Indianapolis Public Schools administration, particularly the district’s partnerships with charter schools.

Michele Lorbieski, a resident from the north side who ran unsuccessfully for the Indianapolis Public Board with the support of the coalition last year, said the district cannot just rely on the next principal to fix the school.

“What I’d hoped to hear tonight was what the school district was doing to put things in place to stop this revolving door of principals,” she said.

District officials did not directly address why turnover has been so high among principals at School 43. But Brynn Kardash, a district official who recently began working with the school, said that the central office is doing more to support it this year.

School 43 was added this year to the transformation zone — an effort to help troubled schools that includes dedicated support and regular visits from a team at the central office, said Kardash, the district’s executive director of schools for the zone. Educators in the zone get additional training, extra planning time, and help analyzing student data, she said.

“The goal is to really support Ms. Ellison in work that she’s doing,” Kardash said, “which then leads to, hopefully, teachers feeling that support in the classroom.”

technical difficulties

This personalized learning program was supposed to boost math scores. It didn’t, new study finds

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A student at I.S. 228 in Brooklyn does online work through Teach to One, a program that grew out of the iZone.

A program that Bill Gates once called “the future of math” didn’t improve state test scores at schools that adopted it, according to a new study.

The research examines Teach to One, a “personalized learning” program used in schools across 11 states and which has drawn support from a number of major funders, including the Gates Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings. (Gates and CZI are also funders of Chalkbeat.)

At five schools in Elizabeth, New Jersey, students who used Teach to One didn’t improve any faster than similar students who didn’t use the program, even after three years. The results underscore the limited evidence for claims that such technology programs can dramatically improve student learning, even as they have become magnets for philanthropic dollars.

“The original aspirations, that Teach to One programs were going to have huge positive effects on math scores — we can rule that out with these studies,” said Jonah Rockoff, a Columbia professor who studied an earlier iteration of the program.

Teach to One says its approach is designed to help students steadily learn math skills, regardless of how unprepared or advanced they are. Students spend time on a computer as well as with a teacher and working in small groups. Students receive individualized schedules each day based on their progress, and a computer program adapts the curriculum to students’ strengths and weaknesses in the form of a “playlist.”

New Classrooms, the organization behind Teach To One, suggests that the Elizabeth results aren’t the full story.

It points to a separate analysis released this week that looks at a broader group of schools — 14, from several districts — that used the program. That study shows Teach to One students making above-average gains on a test known as the MAP, which is taken on a computer with questions changing as students answer correctly or incorrectly.

New Classrooms co-founder Joel Rose suggested in a statement that those computer-adaptive tests capture something that state tests can miss: students’ progress.

“What seems to be emerging is a real tension in math between approaches focused on long-term academic growth and state accountability systems,” he said.

Rockoff said there might be something to New Classroom’s argument that the study using adaptive test is better able to showcase students’ gains. “If [students] are at a grade four level but they’re in grade six, teaching them grade four material is going to hurt them on the state test,” he said.

But the author of the second study, Jesse Margolis, and a number of other researchers who spoke to Chalkbeat note that it cannot show whether Teach to One caused any of the students’ gains, though — a major limitation.

“While this study cannot establish causality, it is encouraging,” Margolis wrote. (The New Jersey study is better able to establish cause and effect, but it also has limitations and does not rely on random assignment.)

The New Jersey study isn’t the first to show that Teach to One didn’t improve test scores: so did Rockoff’s 2015 report on three New York City middle schools that looked at both state and MAP tests.

One possible explanation is that Teach to One is helpful to students in some places but not others. Margolis said his study examined the same five Elizabeth schools as the Columbia study and also found minimal gains there, but that schools elsewhere seemed to see larger improvements.

Researcher John Pane of RAND, a leader in studying personalized learning, says the results are important to understanding a field with limited research to date.

“Because we have so little evidence on personalized learning,” he said, “every data point can be helpful for us to start triangulating and piecing together what works and what doesn’t work.”