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. 

teachers on the ballot

Jahana Hayes, nation’s top teacher in 2016, may be headed to Congress after primary win

2016 National Teacher of the Year Jahana Hayes answers questions from reporters after being honored at the White House. (Photo by Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Jahana Hayes, the 2016 national teacher of the year, is one step closer to Congress.

Hayes, who would be the first black Democrat elected to Congress in the state, won the Democratic primary in Connecticut’s fifth district on Tuesday. Her bid is the most high-profile example of efforts by teachers across the country to win elected office this year, with many dissatisfied over their pay and education policies like evaluations and voucher programs.

In an interview with Chalkbeat in May, Hayes said she decided to run because she believes she can represent the interests of students like hers: “I kind of just had an epiphany, like, who’s going to speak for them?”

Hayes taught history and civics in Waterbury Public Schools, a largely low-income district. Her campaign has embraced her upbringing, including her past homelessness and teen pregnancy and her role as a teacher in the district she grew up in.

“Despite being surrounded by abject poverty, drugs and violence, my teachers made me believe that I was college material and planted a seed of hope,” she said.

Hayes faced Mary Glassman, who ran for lieutenant governor twice and worked at Capitol Region Education Council, which operates magnet schools in Hartford.

Hayes ran on a solidly progressive platform, embracing universal healthcare, free college, and a $15 minimum wage.

When it comes to education, though, she has been light on policy details. Asked about what specifically she’d hope to accomplish in Congress, Hayes told Chalkbeat, “I know that I can bring a perspective and knowledge and expertise in that area that is critical. If we start to dismantle public education now, I don’t know how we’ll ever rebuild it.”

On the hot-button issue of school choice, Hayes stumbled on a question about vouchers, appearing to confuse the concept with charter schools. Ultimately, she said, “A charter system can still be public and continue to support the public education system. I think as we increase the number of vouchers that are provided, it takes away from the public school system.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Hayes said she would work with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has been the focus of opposition for many teachers.

“I need for the secretary of education to be successful because if she’s successful that means kids are thriving,” Hayes said. “I would welcome the opportunity to work very closely with her, to share ideas, to just be at the table to give a different perspective, to give some insight into what is happening on the ground.”

To reach Congress, Hayes still must win the general election. Connecticut’s fifth district is the most competitive one in the state, according to Cook Political Report. Hillary Clinton won the district by 4 percentage points in 2016.

She will face Republican Manny Santos, a former mayor of Meriden, Connecticut.

Hayes was not the only teacher to win a primary bid on Tuesday. In Wisconsin, Tony Evers, the state’s school superintendent and a former teacher and principal, will face Scott Walker in the race for governor. And in Minnesota, Congressman Tim Walz, who was a high school geography teacher and football coach, won the Democratic governor’s primary.

Correction: A previous version of this story said that Hayes would be the first black person elected to Congress in Connecticut; in fact, she would be the first black Democrat.

Mended Fences

Despite earlier attack ads, Colorado teachers union endorses Jared Polis for governor

Congressman Jared Polis meets with teachers, parents and students at the Academy of Urban Learning in Denver after announcing his gubernatorial campaign. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado’s largest teachers union has endorsed Jared Polis, the Democratic candidate for governor.

The endorsement is not a surprise given that teachers unions have traditionally been associated with the Democratic Party. However, the 35,000-member Colorado Education Association had previously endorsed one of Polis’ rivals during the primary, former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy, and contributed money toward negative ads that portrayed Polis as a supporter of vouchers based on a 2003 op-ed, in spite of votes in Congress against voucher programs.

With the primary in the past, CEA President Amie Baca-Oehlert focused on Polis’ support for more school funding, a priority shared by the union.

“Our members share Jared’s concern that too many communities don’t have the resources they need for every child to succeed,” Baca-Oehlert said in the press release announcing the endorsement. “We have created ‘haves and have-nots’ among our children, and nowhere is that more apparent than with our youngest students who don’t receive the same level of quality early childhood education. Jared impressed us with his strong commitment to give all kids a great start and better prepare them for a successful lifetime of learning.”

Polis has made expanding access to preschool and funding full-day kindergarten a key part of his education platform, along with raising pay for teachers.

Polis is running against Republican Walker Stapleton. As state treasurer, Stapleton advocated for changes to the public employee retirement system, including freezes on benefits and cost-of-living raises, that were opposed by the teachers union, something Baca-Oehlert made note of in the endorsement of Polis.

Read more about the two candidates’ education positions here.