iZone chief Sharon Griffin on fixing Memphis’ most challenging schools

When it comes to school turnaround work, Sharon Griffin has established herself as an authority in Memphis — and increasingly across the nation.

As regional superintendent of Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, Griffin has shepherded improvement work in a cluster of struggling schools since the district launched its turnaround initiative in 2012 under a new state law. Overall, the iZone’s test score gains have outpaced other turnaround models. The program has become a bright spot for the beleaguered district and will absorb four more schools next year for a total of 22.

A former teacher and principal, the charismatic Griffin, 47, was named Tennessee’s 2015 supervisor of the year. As the iZone’s chief ambassador, she spoke recently with Chalkbeat about the challenges of urban education, the importance of coaching and supporting principals and teachers, school turnaround strategies that work, and her thoughts on the other school turnaround initiative in Memphis, the state-run Achievement School District.

Here are the highlights:

The iZone has become the jewel of Shelby County Schools by taking some of the worst schools in the state and changing their trajectory in a timely manner. If you had to sum it up, what’s at the root of the iZone’s approach?

Well, first I have to say it’s attitude. You got to believe. And if you don’t believe it’s possible, chances are you’re probably right. I have an unwavering belief that this is possible.

Second, we focus on building relationships, not just with district-level people, but also principal to teacher, teacher to teacher, teacher to student, and student to student. The principal should be able to leave a school because teacher-to-teacher relationships are strong. We have students that lead other students and are self-directed enough to take what they learn home. These relationships trickle down to the community and the stakeholders that are also a part of helping us turn the school around. When you build trust and relationships, you present a united front, and that helps us to overcome poverty, crime, other external factors. It all happens from trust and building relationships.

To get more specific, what do you view as the key ingredients to a successful turnaround model?

Without a doubt, strong leadership. We spend a lot of time and energy making sure we have the right leaders to lead our schools. Have you ever seen the TV show “Criminal Minds”? Before they even look for a perpetrator, they create a profile of the perpetrator’s characteristics based on a crime scene. Before we pick principals, we look at the needs of that school. If it’s a building that’s aesthetically displeasing, then I need to make sure I put a principal there who has the skills to address that. If there’s a literacy or math deficit, we need leaders who are experts in literacy or math. If it’s suffering from poor climate and culture around building relationships, then I know I can’t put a dictator principal there.

Second, when we select principals, we empower them to pick every single staff member. My expectation is I don’t want to just play; I want to win. And if I’m going to hold that much responsibility and accountability on principals, I’ve got to give them the chance to choose their own team and pick every single teacher. The flipside is that, if a teacher decides the iZone model is not for them or they can’t commit the extra time, then we have a “mutual consent” agreement so the teacher can get out of it as well.

"Sometimes you need a person to support teachers without evaluating them."

Third, we have content coaches in literacy, math and science to work with our teachers. Sometimes you need a person to support teachers without evaluating them. It’s not going to be punitive. Sometimes, you just really need a shoulder to cry on. But we don’t stop there. Our content coaches can say, ‘Let me show you how to fix it. Let me show you how to get it right.’

Fourth, we have an extra hour in the school day. That equates to 23 extra days of school a year. High schools hated this at first. But when you think back to schools that are underperforming, why wouldn’t you want to keep the best principals and the best teachers in front of our neediest children for an extra hour a school day? That additional hour has been beneficial in turning around schools.

Finally, we can’t do this work without partnerships. We have volunteers. Teacher Town donated $3.5 million a year for three years to help us sustain those strategies. Funds from SIG (School Improvement Grants from the U.S. Department of Education) supplement our signing and retention bonuses, extended-day compensation and coaches. We’ve also been able to buy some different programs specific to schools struggling with literacy and math.

As the iZone continues to expand, how can the work be sustained?

When we first took these schools, they were underperforming and in critical care. Many are no longer in critical care, and we need to treat them like they’re in an (intensive care unit). That requires a lifestyle change. We have stabilized some of these schools. We came and made the buildings pretty, we hired great teachers, we have a lot of energy. We started in single-digit test scores, but we’re still not in the top 25 percent. And what happens when we move into that 40th percentile? Now we need to move to the 60th and 70th, and that requires a different kind of skill set. If we are in a continuous improvement mindset, we’re happy about our successes, but we’re still not where we need to be. We can’t become complacent. Until we’re in the 99th percentile, we got work to do. And that’s what I have to continue to say and I can’t do it without the team.

What about the rationale behind the signing and retention bonuses, and the challenge of getting good teachers to work at low-performing schools?

This work is so hard because our students are sometimes four grade levels below where they should be. Getting people to come to schools where they presume cultures are bad, students are failing, that’s already the perception. We’ve got to work 10 hours a day just to keep up.

(Kayleigh Skinner)

It’s going to get better. For the first time next year, every student that enters the iZone in kindergarten is going to matriculate into another iZone school until the twelfth grade, so our lift will not be as heavy every single year.

We’ve got to change our branding of the iZone accordingly. We’re no longer just taking underperforming schools. We’re also making sure that all of our students are reading on grade level and above. We’re going to be Shelby County Schools’ new optional schools. So we have to make sure that we change that we’re not just a “fix-it school,” but we are a school that can take students to the 25th century.

How do you manage to energize and refuel your teams considering the mental and physical energy it takes day in and day out from iZone teachers and principals?

I talk to principals about hiring the right #2, #3 and #4 because you cannot do this work by yourself. And to realize that this is not a mistake-free zone. Sometimes, failure is how we learn and grow. For us to continue the momentum we have, we have to understand that they don’t have to know it all. We have to feel comfortable enough about what we don’t know to ask our colleagues. We all have this mask of “I just got to be perfect.” That’s not realistic. My hair is white! That was a peroxide mistake. Now I kind of like it though!

Teacher and principal turnover is a huge struggle in urban education. How do you address that in the iZone?

We did a survey two years ago and asked teachers why did you come to work in the iZone, and why did you stay? The overwhelming answer was support. I get individualized support, I get differentiated support. It’s not cookie-cutter support. The district isn’t mandating purchasing something from a sample of students that won’t work with my students. So I think that the empowerment piece is principals listening to teachers.

"There are no unteachable kids."

We refuse to put an ineffective person or the wrong person in front of our kids. Because research says: one year that a child has an ineffective teacher, it takes two years for them to catch up. Two years in a row with an ineffective teacher? It takes four. Three years in a row and you never catch up. People will tell you, “Yes, I want to work with those kids! And yes, I want to do extra!” But if we find out you’re not doing what’s best for kids in the iZone, you cannot stay because what has happened with our kids or at any school deemed underperforming is not that child’s fault. That’s a “grown folks” problem. That’s our fault that a child did not learn. There are no unteachable kids. I just haven’t found out how to teach you yet. Every child is teachable. That’s what I stand on.

Why do you think schools in traditional district settings struggle to turn themselves around when they realize that they’ve sunk to a low point?

Traditional schools are sometimes not meeting the needs because they just don’t have the funds to allocate the resources. Everybody can’t apply for a SIG grant. You got to be in the bottom 5 percent first. So, I mean, it’s almost like you got to fail before you can even get some money.

In December, researchers at Vanderbilt University released a study on school turnaround work in Tennessee showing that iZone schools have had sizeable positive effects on student test scores, while the ASD’s cumulative effects are marginal. Can you speak more to the results of the study?

We’re not against the ASD. People make it look like the ASD versus iZone. It’s not that at all. It’s our responsibility as citizens in Memphis to help every single child be successful. There wouldn’t be an iZone without the ASD. The ASD helped us realize that what we thought or what was perceived that we were doing right, we were not. So I’m thankful. We’re going to be in collaboration because there were 69 schools on the original state priority list. Every school can’t be iZone. There’s no way we could sustain that. So since the Vanderbilt study, I’ve already met with and talked with the ASD on two separate occasions around some collaboration, around some things we’re going to be doing to support each other.

"If they come to the school angry and mad, they’re not mad at you. They’re mad about some things that have happened that they couldn’t control"

Culturally, I think there were some challenges that the ASD had and didn’t realize. Memphis is very different from anywhere else you’ll go. A lot of us are native Memphians. With the ASD, most of their executive cabinet and even people who led schools, they were from outside of our city. And so the barriers of mistrust and the barriers of not having relationships with the community on the front end has been hard. I can guarantee you: Although I have great principals and teachers, it would not have happened without that strong trust and relationship-building on the front end.

In the iZone, we’re very cognizant of the cultural narrative of every single school that we’ve taken. We understand the barriers of many of our parents. So many single parents. If they come to the school angry and mad, they’re not mad at you. They’re mad about some things that have happened that they couldn’t control. Sometimes they just want somebody to listen.

What does the future hold for the iZone and the iZone model?

We’re not where we need to be. Until kids can read on grade level, until you can master every standard, until you can hit a 23 comfortably on the ACT, our work is not done. Check us out in a few years when we’ve had our babies from K-12 long enough that every ninth-grader is ready. Because ninth grade is the biggest grade where I lose kids. They get stuck and they just stop. That’s when you’re really going to see whether we’ve done our jobs. I want to be in the top 25 percent. I don’t want to have successful schools in a network. I want to have a network of successful schools.

On a personal level, how and why did you get into school turnaround?  What propelled you into this work?

I was principal in Memphis Orange Mound community for five years. It was a tough situation but the most rewarding experience I had as a principal. Let me tell you a story. I gave some students who performed well on their TCAPs this big celebration. And so during the celebration, when I was calling out, “You made Advanced!,” I started to cry. The students got upset and said, “Why are you crying?” and I said, “I’m so happy.” And they said, “But you’re crying.” You see, these were students whose lives were so hard, so challenging, that they had never seen a person cry tears of joy! They only saw tears when you were hurt, when something bad had happened. It made me realize that these kids, their lives, when they come to school with the challenges and they fussin’, it’s not really them. It’s all they’ve ever known.

That’s why I tell our team that school, with the kids we work with, has got to be a home away from home. It’s got to be! You might say it’s not personal. Yes, it is. And if it’s not personal, you won’t stay.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Periodically, Chalkbeat conducts a Q&A interview with a different leader, innovator, influential thinker or hero across Tennessee’s education community. We invite our readers to email Chalkbeat your suggestions for future subjects to maldrich@chalkbeat.org.