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.
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.”
Statehouse correspondent Marta W. Aldrich contributed to this story.
Editor’s note: We updated this story with Marcus Robinson’s current job title.