passing the mantle

With Sharon Griffin’s departure, Shelby County Schools has big (stiletto) shoes to fill

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Sharon Griffin kicked off her tenure as the Achievement School District’s chief on June 1.

In many ways, Sharon Griffin embodied the hope many have for the future of Shelby County Schools.

After she became chief of schools last year, she planned to use the knowledge she had acquired working with several struggling schools to improve all Memphis schools.

So the announcement Tuesday that she is leaving Shelby County Schools to spread her expertise to schools across the state was “bittersweet,” said her boss Superintendent Dorsey Hopson.

Indeed, the loss to the district’s leadership team is tremendous. As a homegrown leader with success in boosting test scores for students in the poorest areas of the city, Griffin was seen as Memphis’ answer to an influx of state and national influence on education in the city.

Though low performing schools operated by Shelby County Schools have outpaced progress of those run by the state, educators say Memphis schools have a long way to go. The city’s students, who are mostly children of color living in poverty, still lag far behind the state average.

Griffin, a charismatic leader with a vibrant personality who is known for her bleach-white hair and colorful collection of stilettos, has been a go-to expert nationally as city school districts seek to combat the impact of poverty on student learning.

Hopson was sentimental when he read a prepared statement — a rarity for him — announcing Griffin’s departure during a school board meeting Tuesday.

“After a long-standing career in [Memphis schools], I consider Dr. Sharon Griffin family. And she has shared with me her personal and professional goals to continue to support students. We support her and wish her continued success and thank her for the undeniable imprint she’s left on Shelby County Schools,” he said.


Read more about Griffin’s first and only year as chief of schools for Shelby County Schools.


Griffin had just unveiled an academic plan three weeks ago to get the district to its lofty Destination 2025 goals of graduating most of its students on time and ready for college or the workforce by 2025.

Though many expected she would be around to carry out the plan she and her colleagues spent months putting together, education onlookers say she has built a team that can see it through.

“There’s no question that there is not another Sharon Griffin waiting in the wings,” said Marcus Robinson, who previously ran the Memphis Education Fund. “But I believe strongly that the superintendent and his senior staff are working on a plan to transform Shelby County Schools. Dr. Griffin has had leadership in designing that plan, so I am confident that the work will continue.”

Miska Clay Bibbs, a school board member, said part of what made Griffin a good leader is that she cultivated other leaders. One recently came back to run the Innovation Zone where he was once a principal. Schools in the Innovation Zone add an extra hour to the school day and offer support services for students, most of whom live in poverty.

“One of the good things she did do is assemble a good team,” she said, adding they have all “grown up in the ranks together.”

“The knowledge is there and I’m looking forward to them having the opportunity to perform,” she said.

The search for a chief academic officer will also change direction, because the district was looking for someone who would have worked closely with Griffin.

“When you have someone like Sharon in place, you have to make sure they complement her skill set,” Hopson said. “So, I think that now as we continue to search, we have to think about the role a little differently.”

One silver lining Hopson pointed to: Griffin can help “reset” Shelby County Schools’ often antagonist relationship with the state.

“This could have the makings of a win-win for priority schools throughout the state,” Hopson said. “I love Sharon. And Sharon is family. And if I can work with anybody, I can work with Sharon.”

Memphians have clamored for more input on the state’s decisions since the state-run Achievement School District started in 2012. Both of Griffin’s predecessors lived in Nashville, even though all but two of the schools they oversaw were in Memphis. And previous attempts at a formal process for community input mostly fell flat.

Since the state district was created, local and state districts have sparred over the state’s authority to expand grade offerings at charters, sharing student contact information, and enrollment.

For state Rep. Raumesh Akbari, a Democrat who has collaborated with the state to work out the kinks in its district, the timing is right considering Griffin’s groundwork in Memphis and need for more collaborative leadership at the state level.

“I’m hoping the footprint in the infrastructure she’s put in place will help Shelby County keep moving forward,” she said. “And because she understands Shelby County Schools and schools that are on the priority list, that should help her form a more collaborative relationship between the ASD, Shelby County schools and other districts across the state.”

Read more about how Griffin’s hiring is breathing new life into Tennessee’s Achievement School District.

Statehouse correspondent Marta W. Aldrich contributed to this story.

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

Movers and shakers

Memphis Education Fund has a new leader. Here’s what the group will put money behind going forward.

PHOTO: Memphis Education Fund
Terence Patterson was the former head of the Downtown Memphis Commission and has been on the Education Fund’s board since it began as Teacher Town.

Memphis’ most prominent education philanthropic fund officially has a new leader in former interim CEO Terence Patterson – and one of his big goals for Memphis Education Fund is to finance more creative, grass-roots solutions to education problems facing the city.

“We’re not going to sit back and wait for someone to bring us an idea,” Patterson said. “We’re getting out in the schools and meeting regularly with school leaders, as well as education partners from across the country.”

(Memphis Education Fund supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

The philanthropy is significant in the Memphis education funding landscape – where cash-strapped districts and charter schools seek outside funding funneled through the Education Fund to improve school facilities, add new curriculums, and even fund in-school positions.

Patterson wants to see multiple types of giving as he enters his second month as CEO.

He is introducing “innovation grants.” His organization will work with education partners, districts, and school leaders to identify innovative programs already happening in Memphis classrooms or elsewhere. Patterson said there’s not a set dollar amount for the grants or any formal application process.

In addition, next year the Education Fund will focus on initiatives that help parents better understand their school choices, increase the number of quality school offerings in Memphis, and improve equitable access to school facilities.

“We see this as helping to fill gaps in bringing quality resources with quality instruction to schools,” Patterson said. “We’re in a position to collaborate with the county commission, the school board, and district leadership to really push on academic achievement.”

The Memphis Education Fund has invested more than $50 million in education initiatives since 2015 — ranging from helping charter schools pay for new curriculums to bolstering teacher and principal pipelines.

The philanthropy has also worked with parent advocacy group Memphis Lift on the possibility of creating a “unified enrollment system.” Each family across the city would fill out a common application listing their top school choices. They would then submit those choices electronically by a deadline that is the same for every parent.

Currently, Memphis has multiple types of schools that require applying in different ways, on different websites. Supporters of unified enrollment, such as Memphis Lift, say it will benefit parents who don’t have the time to research schools on their own.

“To have a true choice district, this is an important component,” Patterson said. “The Memphis landscape has its own nuances. … but common enrollment is an important factor in how we think about choice.”

He also said he hopes to see his organization be more vocal about education policy and continue to prioritize groups focused on teacher and school leader recruitment and retention.

Originally called Teacher Town, the fund was created in 2014 with help from a major investment by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Memphis education leaders and local philanthropists wanted to transform Memphis into a destination for talented teachers. In 2016, the group adopted a broader goal of improving all schools, brought in a new leader, Marcus Robinson from Indianapolis, and joined Education Cities, a national collective of local groups seeking to reshape schools in their cities

Robinson left in April for a job in St. Louis, and Patterson stepped in as interim. Patterson was the former head of the Downtown Memphis Commission and has been on the Education Fund’s board since it began as Teacher Town. He was the former chief of staff for Chicago Public Schools, later becoming the director of the Office of New Schools in Chicago, where he managed 113 new charter schools.

Patterson said he is the right fit for the job because of his background with Memphis schools, in managing districts, and in fundraising. He also said part of his job responsibilities would be bringing more national funders to Memphis.

Outgoing Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the district would be “thrilled to partner” with Patterson.

“He’s world class, and I can’t think of a better selection to support this community’s work to continue to improve student achievement and access to high-quality education,” Hopson said. “He’s worked in a large school district and understands the Memphis context given his grantmaking experience.”

Policy impact

Controversial school inventory report starts to surface in Chicago decision making

PHOTO: Chicago Tribune

When Chicago Public Schools rolled out a comprehensive inventory of its schools and programs earlier this fall, community activists feared that the district would wield the report to close yet more sparsely attended neighborhood schools, and bring in more charters.

But just the opposite happened this week. The school board rejected Intrinsic Schools’ proposal to open a new charter high school in the Loop next school year that would draw students from across the city, following staff advice drawn on the report, the Annual Regional Analysis.

The vote disappointed backers of Intrinsic charter school, which operates a top-rated high school in the Irving Park community on the Northwest Side. The problem, school officials explained, is that the plan didn’t mesh with the district’s map pinpointing which neighborhoods need such high-quality schools.

It turns out, the Loop doesn’t fit the bill.

Build schools where CPS needs it, and then we’ll have a different conversation,” board President Frank Clark told crestfallen supporters of Intrinsic.

The school board and district leadership are under increasing pressure to justify any new school openings as enrollment continues to drop, and as neighborhood schools losing population call for investments and programs to better serve and attract more students. Declining enrollment was cited on Wednesday as one of the most formidable risks the school system faces.

The school board also voted Wednesday to deny two other charter school applications, although for reasons not tied to the Annual Regional Analysis, which the district compiled with assistance from school-choice group Kids First.

Since it was made public in September, the inventory of academic options, enrollment, and quality has become a tool used by the district to convene conversations about neighborhood-by-neighborhood options and, as the board meeting made clear Wednesday, to make hard decisions. Mary Bradley, executive director of the district’s department of innovation and incubation,  said the Intrinsic proposal “does not align with needs identified in the ARA.”

“Where are the needs?” Clark asked Bradley following her presentation explaining the denial.

“Quality needs are mainly on the South and West sides of Chicago,” schools chief Janice Jackson said.

Intrinsic parent Lucy Weatherly said she was deeply disappointed. She touted the current Intrinsic school’s Level 1-plus rating and supportive school community.

But her plea and those of other school supporters did not sway the board.

The denial might have been the first board decision about a school’s fate explicitly tied to the Annual Regional Analysis, which divides the city into 16 planning districts, including the one Intrinsic had proposed a school, the Central Area Region. The area includes downtown, the Loop, and the South Loop.  

The district touts the detailed report as a base of facts to aid planning and community engagement, and it has hosted a series of workshops in neighborhoods around the city to discuss the findings. (There are six meetings left.) But several groups have criticized the document as too reliant on data and school ratings and questioned the district’s intent, given that school quality and enrollment that has been used to justify school closings, turnarounds, and proposals for more charter schools.

On Wednesday, however, school officials used the report to argue that the Intrinsic charter proposal doesn’t meet any existing community need for additional high quality seats.

The majority of students who live in the Central Area Region or attend school there attend top-rated schools. The region’s student population is about 20 percent white, 30 percent Asian, 34 percent black and 11 percent Hispanic, and it’s the only region where white and Asian students outnumber black and Hispanic students. The area is gaining Asian students and losing black students, and the families are growing more moneyed.

The region houses two top-rated selective enrollment schools that draw population from across the city, Jones College Prep and Walter Payton College Prep.

The Intrinsic school would have been the fifth high school in the region and the third charter high school, after Noble-Muchin and Perspectives-Joslin, two citywide schools rated Level 1-plus and 2-plus, respectively.

The area’s population and enrollment have increased since 2014. That’s a sharp contrast with most communities, hence Chicago Schools’ much bemoaned enrollment crisis, which in 2013 was used to justify closing 50 schools.

The challenges posed by Chicago’s dwindling number of children wasn’t lost on school officials at Wednesday’s meeting, especially during a presentation Chief Financial Officer Jennie Bennett provided about the key risks facing the school district.

Clark asked her what the biggest problems were.

Even amid a state takeover of the troubled special education program and continued fallout over the student sexual abuse scandal, her first response was declining enrollment.