NEW MOMENT

Tennessee’s struggling state-run district just hired the ‘LeBron James’ of school turnaround work

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.

In hiring a Memphis native to save its most vulnerable schools, Tennessee is hedging its bets that she can finally get the job done.

Sharon Griffin’s new job is to fix the state’s struggling Achievement School District and use her experience to strengthen the relationships with local districts across the state.

But can she right the ship and make everyone happy?

“I know through my experience and the relationships I’ve built that we cannot only focus and prioritize our work, but strengthen the relationship [between local districts and the state] so all of our schools can be great places of learning,” Griffin said during a conference call this week.

Tennessee’s achievement district started out as the cornerstone of the state’s strategy to improve low performing schools in 2012. It promised to vault the state’s 5 percent of lowest-achieving schools to the top 25 percent within five years. But the district hasn’t produced large academic gains. It’s struggling to attract students and retain high-quality teachers. And local districts don’t like it because the state moved in and took over schools without input.

But as Tennessee works to make its state the national model of school achievement, naming a revered, longtime home-grown leader as point person for school turnaround is seen by many as a jolt of badly needed energy, and a savvy move in a state education system divided into many factions.

“I think it is a game-changer,” said Rep. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, who has championed legislation to refine the achievement district. “The ASD badly needs a strong leader…. She definitely could be the bridge to bring us over troubled water in Tennessee.”


Read more about what Griffin’s hire means for the school district she is leaving behind. 


Education Commissioner Candice McQueen stressed during the call that Griffin’s appointment does not mean state-run schools will return to local control, even as she acknowledged that the district is at a turning point. It’s now the state’s tool of last resort.

“Whether that is transitioning a school back into the district when it is ready or whether it’s to intervene and move a school into the Achievement School District,” McQueen said. “This particular moment is about a person who can lead all of the state interventions as well as the specificity of the ASD.”

For Bobby White, the founder and CEO of a Memphis charter organization in the achievement district, the appointment signals a new chapter ahead. Griffin will directly oversee the district’s 30 charter schools in her new role.

He has been around for the highs and lows of Tennessee’s six-year experiment in state-run turnaround work.

“It feels like we got LeBron James, you know?” said White, who runs Frayser Community Schools. “It feels like she will have a vision and take us where we have been needing to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Frayser Community Schools CEO Bobby White has seen the highs and lows of the turnaround district.

Part of that vision will be finding new ways for charter schools and local districts to work together. In her roles as assistant commissioner of School Turnaround and chief of the Achievement School District, Griffin will oversee more than just the state-run district. She will have a hand in turnaround efforts across the state, such as a new partnership zone in Chattanooga. In the partnership zone, state and local leaders will work together to create mini-districts that are freed from many local rules.

Griffin stressed earlier this week that building relationships and fostering collaboration are among her top strengths — efforts that the state has failed in as local districts have sparred with state-runs schools over enrollment, facilities, and sharing student contact information.

“We have a level playing field now,” Griffin said. “I want to be clear, it’s not us against them. It’s a chance to learn not only from what ASD has been able to do alongside charter schools, but a chance to learn from each other as we move forward.”

Marcus Robinson, a former Indianapolis charter leader, said Griffin’s dynamic personality will be enough to get the job done.

“Dr. Griffin is magnetic,” said Robinson, who is leaving the Memphis Education Fund next month for a new job with The Opportunity Trust in St. Louis.

“She is the type of person who disarms people because she’s so authentic and genuine,” he said. “But she’s also experienced and wise and she knows school turnaround work.”

Griffin leaves behind a 25-year award-winning career with Shelby County Schools, the local district in Memphis. She has been a teacher and principal. She spearheaded the district’s turnaround work, and now serves as chief of schools. She will start her new role in May and will stay based in Memphis — something community members have long asked for.

Student at Frayser Achievement Academy.
PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick
A student walks through the hall of Frayser Achievement Elementary School, a state-run school.

Steve Lockwood has watched the state’s reform play out in his Memphis neighborhood of Frayser, whose schools were home to some of the first state takeovers.

When the state first started running schools in Frayser, it was with the promise that the academics and culture would improve, said Lockwood, who runs the Frayser Community Development Corporation.

“The ASD has struggled to deliver on their mission,” Lockwood said. “But the last few months have been modestly encouraging. The ASD has seemed willing to admit mistakes and shortcomings.”

Lockwood said he sees Griffin’s appointment as a commitment by the state to bettering relationships in Memphis — and added that he was surprised she signed up.

“It’s a tribute to the ASD that they have enough juice left to attract someone like Dr. Griffin,” Lockwood said.

Editor’s note: We updated this story with Marcus Robinson’s current job title. 

Who Is In Charge

CPS to enforce nine training sessions for local school council members

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Local school council members at a training session on Tuesday

In a classroom at Bogan High School Tuesday, trainer Jose Ortiz quizzed four local school council members on why they have to hold public meetings before approving their school improvement plan, a key document outlining school priorities and direction. The room fell silent.

“Because,” he answered himself, “the worst thing that the local school council could do is not consult the community.”

Ortiz’s training session illustrated the challenges that Chicago Public Schools faces in ensuring that all members of the powerful councils understand their roles and responsibilities.

The district requires those who help govern its 646 schools each attend around 18 hours of in-person training, or nine online modules. But not everyone complies: Ortiz said that last week, around 10 people attended each module he taught, and on Tuesday, only four people sat through his class. Most council members take the training online, but the effectiveness of those modules is questionable, council members said.

In a district whose school board is appointed by the mayor instead of elected by city residents, the councils, as Ortiz pointed out, serve as important channels enabling residents to drive the direction of their children’s education. Normally consisting of 12 members, including the principal, teachers, parents, and community members, the councils hire and evaluate the principal, approve the budget, and help craft two-year school improvement plans for their schools.

Chicago schools have another problem with the councils: 47 percent of schools have failed to field enough candidates to fill seats, which then allows sitting council members to fill the vacancies. That means less electoral control for residents. It’s unclear if the training requirement deters people from seeking council seats.

Nevertheless, district officials said that this year they will enforce the training requirement and will contact members who fail to finish it.

“We are going to start removing people this year, but it will be after contacting them by email, through phone and then giving them an opportunity before we schedule a hearing, and then we will consider removing them,” said Guillermo Montes de Oca, director of the Office of Local School Council Relations.

As Ortiz continued with his training, he asked if members remember approving their school improvement plan in the past school year. The attendees looked at him with puzzled faces.

“Oh yes, I remember now,” said Andrea Sanchez, a council member at Richard J. Daley Elementary Academy. But, she added, “it’s just overwhelming because you’re looking at numbers and pages, especially when you’re not used to seeing it.” Sanchez has been a council member since December, but she had attended only one out of the nine mandatory training modules before Tuesday, because most of the two-hour sessions were held in various locations throughout the city far from her home.

According to the Illinois School Code, council members must finish all modules within six months of taking office, so newly elected members who take office on July 1 have until Dec. 31 to complete the modules. CPS has never removed a council member for not finishing the training, said Guillermo Montes de Oca. However, that’s changing.

This year, CPS has also been encouraging council members to finish the modules by July 31, he said, because “if you’re going to be seated, discussing the budget and everything, you need to be informed.”

Sanchez said she didn’t know know about the six-month deadline until Tuesday. She wishes the nine modules would be held all at once at her school. “The information in the modules should be given to us right away [upon joining the council],” she said.

Montes de Oca said that the Office of Local School Council Relations encourages council members to take the training online. Especially because the office only offers a few modules per month, to meet the July 31 deadline, council members would have to take most of their training online.

But the attendees Tuesday seemed to prefer the in-person trainings . Denishia Perkins, a council member at Shields Middle School for almost two years, said that she had taken all the training modules online, but they “didn’t do much for me.” The online training consists of clicking through slides of bullet-pointed information and then taking a short quiz at the end of each module.

“It’s so possible to get elected and not know about this stuff,” Perkins said. So she decided to attend the in-person training on Tuesday.

Sanchez said of Ortiz’s class, “It felt one-on-one, and he’s really explaining it to you.”

The trainings are not the only impediment to filling local school council seats.

A representative from the parent group Raise Your Hand told the Sun-Times that people may not want to run for a council position because “people are a little frustrated at the weakening of the local school council.” Currently, 50 percent of principals’ evaluations rely on CPS’ data and metrics, when previously the evaluations relied solely on the council members’ judgment.

Sanchez said that the work of councils are just not advertised enough, and many parents like  her already are involved with jobs or other organizations.

“I don’t think the parents know that we’re that important,” Sanchez said. “I didn’t know either.”

another path

‘They’re my second family.’ Largest Pathways to Graduation class earn their diplomas

Jasmine Byrd receives an award for excellence after giving a speech to her fellow graduates.

Before last fall, Jasmine Byrd never envisioned herself striding across the stage to receive a diploma at a graduation ceremony.

But then Byrd moved to the Bronx from Utah and entered New York City’s Pathways to Graduation program, which helps 17- to 21-year-olds who didn’t graduate from a traditional high school earn a High School Equivalency Diploma by giving them free resources and support.

Just walking into this space and being like, this is what you’ve accomplished and this is what you’ve worked hard for is a great feeling,” said Byrd, who also credits the program with helping her snag a web development internship. “I’ve built my New York experience with this program. They’re my second family, sometimes my first when I needed anything.”

Byrd is one of about 1,700 students to graduate during the 2017-2018 school year from Pathways, the program’s largest graduating class to date, according to officials.  

This year, students from 102 countries and 41 states graduated from Pathways, which is part of District 79, the education department district overseeing programs for older students who have had interrupted schooling.

The program also saw the most students ever participate in its graduation ceremony, a joyful celebration held this year at the Bronx United Palace Theater. According to Robert Evans, a math teacher at one of the program’s five boroughwide sites and emcee of the graduation, about 600 students typically show up to walk the stage. But students can be a part of the ceremony even if they received their passing test results that morning, and this year more than 800 graduates attended.

There were still students coming in last night to take photos and to pick up their sashes and gowns,” said Evans.

The graduation ceremony is unique in part because the program is. Students who have not completed high school attend classes to prepare to take the high school equivalency exam. But the program also prepares students to apply for college, attend vocational school, or enter the workforce by providing help applying for colleges, creating resumes and other coaching.

To make sure that the program is accessible to all students, there’s a main site in every borough and 92 satellite sites, located in community centers and youth homeless shelters like Covenant House. Students who want to work in the medical field, like Genesis Rocio Rodriguez, can take their courses in hospitals. Rodriguez, who graduated in December, is now enrolled in the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and passing the exam meant being one step closer to her dream of becoming a nurse.

When I got my results I was with my classmate, and to be honest I thought I failed because I was so nervous during it. But then I went online, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh I did it!’ My mom started crying and everything.”

Byrd said the program worked for her because of the supportive teachers and extra resources.

“The teachers are relatable,” said Byrd. “They don’t put on an act, they don’t try to separate the person from the teacher. They really reach out, even call you to get you out of bed in the morning.”

Carmine Guirland said the supportive environment of social workers, guidance counselors, and teachers is what attracts him to the work at Bronx NeOn, a site where students who are on probation or who are involved with the court system can prepare for the exam, college, and careers.

When students are on parole they will have really involved [parole officers] who would text me at the beginning of class to check in so that we could work together,” said Guirland. “It’s really about that village thing. The more support systems that are available the more success the students will have.”

Reflecting on his experiences with the graduating class, Guirland’s most treasured memory was when one of his students proposed to his girlfriend in a guidance counseling session. Even though they aren’t together anymore, the moment was a reflection of the relationships that many of the students build during their time at Pathways to Graduation.

“It’s this amazing high moment where this student felt like the most comfortable place for him to propose to his girlfriend and the mother of his child was in our advisory circle,” said Guirland.