New direction

Here’s what Sharon Griffin wants to do in her first month as Tennessee’s new turnaround leader

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

Tennessee’s state-run district faces many challenges as it enters a new era under its third leader in six years, but prominent among them is addressing community pushback and distrust.

Sharon Griffin kicked off her tenure as the Achievement School District’s chief on Friday. One of her first orders of business will be reconnecting the district with the community it serves most — Memphis.

Griffin, a longtime Memphian, said she wants to quickly launch an advisory team of local parents, students, and faith leaders after hearing from the community that they want face time with the district’s leadership.

“I want to provide a face-to-face avenue, something I’ve heard loud and clear that the community wants,” Griffin told Chalkbeat. “I want to give a place and space to voice concerns and support… I know this is going to be a team effort, but I want to work to make sure the community knows they have someone leading the work that they can trust.”  

Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat this week that the state is banking on Griffin as the kind of leader who can re-establish the district’s credibility with the communities it serves — in particular because of her experience in turnaround work in Shelby County, her natural charisma, and her communication skills.  McQueen hopes Griffin can help the district deliver the academic improvements it promised when it was created.

The state Department of Education named Griffin to succeed Malika Anderson, who resigned last fall, in a surprise announcement in April. The turnaround district launched in 2012 as the cornerstone of the state’s strategy to improve the bottom 5 percent of low performing schools. It promised to vault them to the top 25 percent within five years by recruiting charter organizations to run schools. 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.

During her first month on the job, Griffin said she will spend most of her time in Memphis, meeting with leaders in their schools. Of the 30 schools Griffin now leads, 28 are in Memphis, but she is the first chief to live in the city —  something community members have long asked for. She comes from a 25-year career with Shelby County Schools, the city’s traditional school district.   

But McQueen says she believes Griffin can move the district forward. What does that look like? For McQueen, it’s having Griffin focus on three things during her first months at the helm:

  • Improving content and instruction in the classroom, particularly when it comes to early literacy;
  • Recruiting and supporting effective teachers and leaders;
  • Planning strategically and collaboratively with the district’s charter operators.

“Developing high quality charter operators who can do this work and planning for charter growth is very important for the next phase of our work,” McQueen said. “But we know that structure itself is not the magic bullet. The way a school is set up in terms of improvement is only as good as what’s happening in our classrooms.”

Griffin will have her work cut out for her, as the vast majority of elementary, middle, and high school students in the district aren’t scoring on grade level.

But Griffin said greater collaboration — not only among charter operators in the turnaround district but between charter schools and Shelby County Schools — will be a key to improvement. Griffin launched Shelby County’s own turnaround effort, known as the Innovation Zone or the iZone, which has been regarded as more successful than the state-run district.

“We have to be honest about the results and where we are, but I know the results in the ASD will change,” Griffin said. “I’ve had the opportunity to see how the community has responded to both the iZone and the ASD, and we can learn from each other. I believe the collaboration we will focus on in the months moving forward will be phenomenal.”

Though Griffin said she will focus on Memphis in the early months, eventually her role will take her around the state to visit turnaround schools in Nashville and the state’s new partnership zone in Chattanooga. In the partnership zone, state and local leaders will work together to create minidistricts that are freed from many local rules.

In Chattanooga, “we’re looking forward to Dr. Giffin’s advice on the ground, which has so much credibility because of the work she’s already done,” McQueen said. “She has a unique ability to advise us on what’s next, and we’re thrilled for that expertise.”

Leadership

New principal hired for Denver’s storied Manual High School

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Denver's Manual High School

Manual High School, a storied school in northeast Denver that has struggled academically, finally will have a new principal: Joe Glover, who currently serves as an assistant principal at nearby East High.

Glover will start his new job on Jan. 1, according to a letter from district administrators to Manual students, families, and community members. Glover will take over for an interim principal who is leading the school this fall. The last permanent principal abruptly resigned in March.

This was the second time this year that Denver Public Schools had tried to hire a principal for Manual. Its first attempt ended when the top prospect turned down the job.

Glover was one of two finalists for the position. The other finalist, Douglas Clinkscales, has worked at Manual since 2007 and is currently the assistant principal and athletic director.

Manual serves about 300 students, nearly all of whom are black and Latino and come from low-income families. Though the school’s enrollment is small, its significance is big.

Manual is often held up as one of the most traumatic examples of the district’s strategy of closing low-performing schools and reopening them with a new program in hopes of better outcomes. Manual was closed in 2006 and reopened in 2007. While the school has seen some successes since then, its students have continued to struggle on state tests.

Read Glover’s resume below.

Super Search

Critics see Susana Cordova’s husband’s job as a conflict of interest. Here’s what you need to know.

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Susana Cordova visits College View Elementary School in 2016.

Since Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova was named the sole finalist for the Denver school district’s top job last week, critics have zeroed in on one fact in particular: Cordova’s husband is a banker who does business with charter schools.

Charter schools are controversial. They are funded with public money but independently run by nonprofit boards of directors. In Colorado, the majority of charters are authorized by school districts — and Denver Public Schools has the most in the state: 60 of its 213 schools are charters.

Charter schools have played a key role in Denver’s approach to school improvement and have sometimes replaced low-performing district-run schools. Cordova worked in and supervised district-run schools during her time with Denver Public Schools, but community members who don’t like charters have raised concerns about her family connection to charter schools.

Cordova’s husband, Eric Duran, is an investment banker for a nationwide financial company called D.A. Davidson, which has an office in Denver. The company describes Duran as “one of the leading investment bankers in the charter school movement,” and says he’s done deals in Pennsylvania, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado.

The deals Duran has done include one in Denver with a charter school called Monarch Montessori, which serves students in kindergarten through fifth grade in the far northeast part of the city. In 2015, Monarch Montessori issued $8.8 million in bonds to pay for the construction of five new classrooms, space for a gymnasium and assemblies, and an expanded cafeteria.

An offering document on file with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission notes that D.A. Davidson was paid an underwriter’s fee of $132,225 as part of the Monarch Montessori deal.

At the time, Cordova held the position of chief schools officer for Denver Public Schools and was responsible for overseeing 165 district-run schools. She did not oversee charter schools or play a role in approving charter schools.

If Cordova is hired as superintendent, D.A. Davidson has said it will not do any business with Denver Public Schools or with any charter schools in Denver during her tenure.

The Monarch Montessori deal was between D.A. Davidson and the charter school’s board of directors; the offering document was signed by one of the school’s founders, who also served as president of its board, and a special education teacher who was on the board.

Denver Public Schools was not involved in the deal. In a statement, the district said it “does not have any financial obligations with the bonds issued by charters,” and district leaders “do not influence the financing decisions by independent charter schools.”

But parents and community members who don’t like charter schools see Duran’s work as evidence that Cordova has personally profited from charter schools, which they argue is a conflict of interest and makes her unfit to be superintendent of the school system. They have raised the issue repeatedly on social media.

Duran’s job was also the subject of a submitted question at a forum Wednesday night related to Cordova’s selection as the sole finalist.

In response, Cordova emphasized that no Denver Public Schools employee — including herself — had anything to do with the 2015 Monarch Montessori deal or with two other deals that other D.A. Davidson bankers have done with Denver charter schools in the past 10 years.

She also said she’s proud of her husband, who grew up poor in Denver, sleeping on the floor of the 800-square-foot apartment he shared with his extended family. After graduating from North High School, she said he got a scholarship to college and went onto a career in finance.

“He’s spent the vast majority of his career working on things like affordable housing, public school finance, hospitals — things that I believe we all believe are important for our communities to be thriving,” said Cordova, who is also a graduate of Denver Public Schools and has worked for the district since 1989. “So I’m incredibly proud of the work he has done.”

Charter school bond deals are actually relatively rare in Denver. The only reason a charter school would issue a bond is if it wanted to build, expand, or repair its own building. But most charter schools in Denver don’t own their own buildings. That’s because the district has been more amenable than most in the entire country to sharing space in its existing buildings with charter schools for a fee, a practice known as co-location.

The Denver school board named Cordova the sole finalist for the superintendent job last week. The board — which governs the entire school district and is separate from charter school boards — is expected to vote Dec. 17 on whether to appoint Cordova to the top job.