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.”
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.”