Under growing tension, heralded turnaround leader Sharon Griffin resigns as head of achievement district

A year after Sharon Griffin’s rise to chief of Tennessee’s embattled turnaround district drew widespread praise – and months of tension – Griffin has resigned effective June 28, state officials confirmed Monday.

Griffin resigned on Friday after disagreement with the state on what Griffin’s central office should look like, said Amity Schuyler, the Department of Education’s deputy commissioner.

She will become chief of innovation for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools on July 1, the district announced later in the day.

Griffin will be replaced by two interims: One to-be-named who will oversee the Achievement School District’s academics, and Lisa Settle, a longtime district official who will supervise school operations. Schuyler said the state will conduct a national superintendent search with the goal of filling that position by January.

Griffin’s resignation came as new Gov. Bill Lee and Penny Schwinn, his education commissioner, look closely at the state-run district’s charter-centric turnaround model and its failure to deliver on promises to significantly improve low-performing schools taken over by the state beginning in 2012. It also reflects the growing tension between Griffin — a hands-on leader who wanted to play a bigger role in day-to-day school operations — and charter operators who were promised autonomy to take on those schools.

This is Schwinn’s first major leadership change in the achievement district. Griffin was named superintendent, the district’s fourth leader in seven years, under Schwinn’s predecessor, Candice McQueen, in April 2018.

While Griffin’s appointment was initially heralded as a huge win for the state-run district, her short tenure dissolved into fraught relationships with most of the charter school leaders who run the majority of the district’s schools.

“Working for the TDOE, and the awesome and amazing students/families in the Achievement School District, has been a wonderful experience that has afforded me the valuable opportunity to learn and grow, and I am very grateful to have been a part of this organization,” Griffin said in her resignation letter to the state. She did not respond to multiple attempts for comment.

Schuyler said the state department was grateful for Griffin’s work but ultimately diverged in visions for how to move the district forward.

Prior to the resignation, there were “tension points around the philosophy of how big the ASD district office should be and what the district office’s interaction was in terms of support with the charters,” Schuyler told Chalkbeat.

RELATED: After a year with a new leader, high hopes are giving way to tension within Tennessee’s turnaround district

Earlier this month, Schwinn released her top priorities as part of the department’s proposed five-year strategic plan. For school improvement work, the draft calls for “restructuring school turnaround so that there is more shared ownership between the state and local districts.” It didn’t offer specifics on the Achievement School District, but it does suggest that Tennessee could choose to rely less on the district and more on “Partnership Zones,” a collaborative state-district approach that just finished its first year in Chattanooga.

Schuyler said the state is thinking deeply about what the future of the district will look like, adding, “it probably could look more like the Partnership Zones in some ways.”

In her time, Griffin doubled down on accountability, saying that charter operators could be replaced if they didn’t show improvements. Schwinn agreed with Griffin on increasing accountability, but didn’t agree with Griffin’s approach of getting results through increased central office supports.

Penny Schwinn visits Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary School as part of her March tour of Memphis’ state-run schools. (Caroline Bauman)

Schuyler said that Griffin wanted to expand her growing central office staff, which was already a source of tension with the charter operators who said the central office took away resources and duplicated some of their school-based efforts.

“It had gotten to the extent where I felt like the central office was too big and charter schools were not being well-served,” Schuyler said. “I think Dr. Griffin would disagree and say the opposite … But when charters are not collaborative with the district, resources don’t end up close to students.”

Griffin’s resignation came days after Schuyler and Katie Poulos, the state’s new chief of schools, and other Department of Education officials met in a closed-door meeting Thursday with district charter school leaders in Memphis. Griffin was not present at that meeting, and her upcoming resignation was not mentioned, one participant said.

Griffin went from reporting directly to the education commissioner to reporting to Poulos under a revised chain of command Schwinn launched in April. Poulos oversees the state’s efforts to improve schools and reports to Schuyler.

Bob Nardo, who leads Libertas School of Memphis under the district, told Chalkbeat that at the Thursday meeting, state officials reiterated their commitment to charter schools as a pillar of state turnaround work.

“We heard at that meeting that we still have a hard mission ahead of us, but they are committed to giving us the most resources possible,” Nardo said. “They said unequivocally that the ASD and charter schools are a part of the state’s mission…and anything they’re doing now is to reinforce that and sustain the ASD on its original vision.”

But the state-run district’s status quo wasn’t working, said Sarah Carpenter, the executive director for parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift.

“I’m devastated… People that want things to change, they always get kicked to the curb,” Carpenter told Chalkbeat. “And the people who don’t want to comply are the failing schools.”

Tennessee’s turnaround district started out as the cornerstone of the state’s strategy to improve low performing schools in 2012. The district promised to raise the state’s lowest performing schools into the top quarter academically within five years by putting charter organizations in control of the schools. But the district, which now runs 30 schools under 11 charter organizations, hasn’t produced large academic gains.

Related: It’s been six years since Tennessee took over its first low-performing schools. How are they doing?

When Griffin took the job with the Achievement School District, she left a successful 25-year career with Shelby County Schools where she had spearheaded the district’s own turnaround work, the Innovation Zone, known as the iZone.

Gini Pupo-Walker, a board member with Nashville schools, said it’s the work Griffin did at the iZone that makes her a perfect fit for the job with the state’s second largest district, which has seen an increase in schools on the state’s list of lowest-performing schools, known as the priority list.

“She’s done the work in the trenches year after year,” Pupo-Walker said. “It’s no secret we have more priority schools in Nashville than we did three years ago. When I heard we’d hired Dr. Griffin, I was thrilled.”

At the Achievement School District, Griffin brought with her a new vision for how to make big changes within the achievement district. After spending her first year talking to and listening to charter leaders, Griffin said she wanted to play a bigger role in the daily operations of schools than past leaders, and asked charter and school leaders to improve test scores, to bolster teacher recruitment and training, and to add strong educators in the early grades.

Teacher Marva Bell checks a student’s work at Libertas School of Memphis, a charter school run by a Tennessee-based operator in the Achievement School District. (Laura Faith Kebede)

High profile district employees also left during her tenure. Longtime Memphian and political operative Bobby White said he was forced to step down in April as the chief of external affairs. For the last three years, White has been one of the most public faces of the district as he communicated with parents, the media, and charter networks. Yolanda Dandridge announced earlier this month that she was leaving her longtime school, where she reported directly to Griffin. She now runs a different school within the achievement district and reports to Memphis Scholars.

Growing tension between Griffin and longtime charter leaders centered on what Griffin had the power and authority to do. The achievement district wasn’t designed for a leader to make significant changes. It was designed to allow the superintendent some oversight but very little academic or operational control over charter leaders.

Over the last four months, Chalkbeat talked with six charter school leaders in the district who asked not to be named because they were afraid of damaging relationships with the district. They spoke to a growing divide between school leaders and Griffin.

Charter leaders said that Griffin wanted to take away some of the autonomy promised to them. Griffin told Chalkbeat in early May that she would stand by her direction.

“Change is never easy,” Griffin said then. “There were a lot of conversations with [charter leaders] and me in helping me understand before we started to move the pieces in this puzzle. … But now, I mean we have to produce not only for children, but because the life of the model depends upon it.”

Nardo said the state now needs to hire someone who can offer “the best of both worlds.”

“We need people who understand the day-to-day reality of running schools in Memphis,” Nardo said. “At the same time, we need folks who can work really seamlessly with the state to ensure the whole policy environment is supported.”

Reporters Laura Faith Kebede and Kathryn Palmer contributed to this report.