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. 

Top teacher

Former Tennessee teacher of the year wins prestigious national award

Cicely Woodard, an eighth-grade math teacher in Franklin, receives the 2019 NEA Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence. (Photo courtesy of NEA)

Former Tennessee teacher of the year Cicely Woodard has received the nation’s highest teaching honor through its largest teacher organization.

The eighth-grade math educator in Franklin accepted the Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence from the NEA Foundation. The honor, which includes a $25,000 prize, was presented Friday at a gala in Washington, D.C.

“Teaching can be time-consuming, challenging, and sometimes overwhelming,” said Woodard. “But the impact that we make on the lives of students — and that they make on us — is powerful, life-changing, and enduring.”

A graduate of Central High School in Memphis, Woodard has been a teacher since 2003. She taught in Nashville public schools when she was named Tennessee’s top teacher in 2018 and has since moved to Franklin Special School District in Williamson County, south of Nashville, where she teaches at Freedom Middle School.

Woodard was among 46 educators nominated for the NEA Foundation award by their state education associations and was one of five finalists who received the Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence, which carries an additional $10,000 prize. The Member Benefits Award winner was announced at the finale of the gala attended by 900 people.

“Cicely has been selected for this award by her peers not only because of her mastery as an educator, but also because of the empathy and compassion she shows for her students,” said Harriet Sanford, president and CEO of the NEA Foundation.

Known for her inquiry-based approach to mathematics, Woodard holds a bachelor’s degree in math from the University of Memphis and a master’s degree in secondary math education from Vanderbilt University.

She has had numerous state-level roles, including serving on the education department’s teachers cabinet and on the testing task force created by former Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. She also is on the steering committee for the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a Nashville-based education research and advocacy organization.

You can watch Woodard in her classroom in the video below.

Penny Schwinn

What we heard from Tennessee’s education commissioner during her first week

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn (right) speaks with students during a visit to LEAD Neely's Bend, a state-run charter school in Nashville. (Photo courtesy of LEAD Public Schools)

From students in the classroom to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Penny Schwinn introduced herself as Tennessee’s education commissioner this week by praising the state’s academic gains over the last decade and promising to keep up that momentum by supporting school communities.

Schwinn toured seven schools in Middle and East Tennessee during her first three days on the job to get a firsthand look at what’s behind the academic growth that she’s watched from afar as chief accountability officer for Delaware’s education department and more recently as deputy commissioner over academics in Texas. She plans to visit schools in West Tennessee next week.

The goal, she said, is to “listen and learn,” and she told a statewide gathering of superintendents at midweek that Tennessee’s successes can be traced to the classroom.

“It has to do with the hard work of our educators … every single day getting up, walking in front of our children, and saying ‘You deserve an excellent education, and I’m going to be the one to give it to you,’” she said.

On policy, she affirmed Tennessee’s decade-long blueprint of setting rigorous academic standards, having a strong assessment to track performance, and holding school communities accountable for results.

“If we can keep that bar high … then I think that Tennessee will continue to improve at the rate that it has been,” she told legislators during an appearance before the House Education Committee.

Schwinn was the final cabinet member to start her job after being hired by Republican Gov. Bill Lee just days before his inauguration on Jan. 19. Her whirlwind first week began with school visits on Monday and concluded on Friday by attending a policy-heavy session of the State Board of Education.

But perhaps the biggest introduction came on Wednesday before district leaders attending a statewide meeting of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, also known as TOSS. These are the local administrators she’ll work with most closely to try to improve student performance.

The superintendents group had stayed neutral about who should succeed Candice McQueen in the state’s top policy job but hoped for a leader with extensive experience both in the classroom and as a Tennessee school superintendent. Schwinn is neither, having started her career in a Baltimore classroom through Teach For America and later founding a charter school in her hometown of Sacramento, California, where she also was a principal and then became an assistant district superintendent.

She appeared to wow them.

“Our job at the state Department of Education is to figure out what you all need to help your teachers be the best that they can be for our students. My job is to lead this department to ensure that this happens,” she told the superintendents.

Schwinn shared a personal story about adopting her oldest daughter, now age 6, and the “powerful moment” at the hospital when the birth mom said she loved her baby but couldn’t provide her with the future she deserves. “I think you can,” she told Schwinn, “and so I’m giving you my baby.”

Penny Schwinn speaks to the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents. (Photo courtesy of TOSS)

“When I think about my responsibility as a teacher or a principal or as commissioner of the state of Tennessee, I think about all of our parents … who pack up lunches, pack up backpacks, drop them off at the door and they give us their babies,” she said.

“That is the most powerful and important responsibility that we have as educators,” she said, “and I take that very, very seriously.”

Several superintendents stood up to thank her.

“I am encouraged. I feel like you have the heart that we all have,” said Linda Cash, who leads Bradley County Schools in southeast Tennessee.

“What she did most is she listened,” said TOSS Executive Director Dale Lynch of his earlier meeting with Schwinn. “As superintendents and directors, that’s very important to us.”

Here are other things we heard Schwinn say this week:

On whether Tennessee will continue its 3-year-old literacy program known as Read to be Ready:

“It is incredibly important that we have initiatives that stick and that have staying power. I think we’ve all had the experience of having … one-and-done initiatives that come and go. … From [my early school] visits, it was underscored time and time again the importance of initiatives like that.”

On the role of early childhood education:

“I think that early education — and that’s both academic and social development — is incredibly important to ensure that we get kindergartners who are ready to learn and ready to be successful.”

On the state-run turnaround district for Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools:

“High expectations are the vision of the Achievement School District, but I think there’s a lot of work to be done candidly. There are good conversations to be had and some questions to be asked. But I will say that I am committed to ensuring that our lowest-performing schools achieve and grow at a much faster rate than they have been.”

On Texas’ academic growth in the 1990s that later flattened:

“They got very comfortable. It was, ‘We’re just doing just fine, we’re doing a great job,’ and then slowly some of the big reforms that they put into place in the ’90s started peeling back little by little. … It’s hard to get things done, but it’s really hard to hold the line.”

Here are six other things to know about Penny Schwinn.