‘We have to get this right’: With Sharon Griffin out, achievement district seeks consistency, communication

With yet another superintendent leaving Tennessee’s turnaround district, parents, school staff, and community members are asking for a leader who will stay the course.

Sharon Griffin (SCS)

The district tasked with improving Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools confirmed Monday that Sharon Griffin, the superintendent of the Achievement School District, had resigned a year after she was named its fourth leader in seven years. Katie Poulos, the state’s new chief of schools overseeing turnaround efforts, said there will be a national search for a permanent replacement.

In the meantime, two Memphians will share the role on an interim basis: Yolanda Dandridge, formerly the principal of the district’s highest performing school, and Lisa Settle, a longtime director of operations. (Dandridge will no longer transition to a principalship with a charter school in the achievement district, as previously reported.)

Griffin’s resignation, effective June 28, came as 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. The achievement district comprises 30 charters schools, 28 of which are in Memphis.

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

When Griffin was named superintendent by former Governor Bill Haslam, there was a lot of excitement based on her extensive background in turnaround work, but also in the fact she was from Memphis. When she leaves the district, she’ll work for Metro Nashville Public Schools as the chief of innovation.

In her absence, “It will be interesting to see what the Department of Education does next,” said Mendell Grinter, the executive director of Campaign for School Equity, which works with achievement district students. “The ASD has shifted its focus a number of times. At some point, we have to get this thing right and get a leader who sticks around. Or do you say now that it’s time to invest in a completely different strategy? I don’t have an answer to that, but I think we need one.”

Tennessee’s turnaround district started in 2012 as the cornerstone of the state’s strategy to improve schools performing in the bottom 5 percent statewide. 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 achievement schools haven’t produced large academic gains, and it has struggled to attract students and retain high-quality teachers.

Griffin’s departure comes amid growing tensions 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.

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

Bobby White, leader of Memphis-based charter organization Frayser Community Schools, whenever a new leader comes in, “tension is expected.”

“I felt the resignation came before we really figured out our new rhythm,” said White, who wished Griffin well and called her interim replacements “steadying forces.”

But when it comes to naming permanent leadership for the district, White said, “We have to get this right this time … the turnover has not afforded us the ability to gain traction. We need a leader to be in place for a minute.”

Roblin Webb, who runs Memphis-based charter network Freedom Prep, said the district needs consistency in leadership, in addition to a new roadmap for how the achievement district will better schools and how it will hold charter organizations accountable to improvements.

“I would love to see a commitment to the longevity of the organization, and I would love for that commitment to look like the state saying, ‘OK, this is our 5-10 year revised mission statement, vision, and strategic plan,” said Webb, who runs an elementary school under the achievement district that has bucked the district’s trend of low-enrollment. “That’s what we need.”

Part of Griffin’s focus this past year was on revamping a report card to hold charter schools accountable to certain measures and potentially replace operators that are falling short.

Webb said clear messaging about what is expected of charter organizations is needed, as the leadership turnover has made it difficult to know what success looks like.

“[When the district started], we were really aspirational but internally not as realistic,” Webb said. “We need an internal set of metrics that helps us know if we’re moving toward goals set forth by the state, and we need consistency in those goals.”

For the parents, students, and teachers in district schools, the turnover can be exhausting, said Regenia Dowell, president of the Frayser Community Parent-Teacher-Student Association.

Lisa Settle (Achievement Schools)

“We have to continue to meet new people, get them acclimated to the community, so then they can start the work,” Dowell said. “This may be why things haven’t moved like they should have if someone was in place in a continuous manner. We’re wanting leaders to support our children to the best of their ability. And if there’s no accountability from that leader to the schools under them, I don’t know if that will happen.”

During the transition, Dandridge and Settle were chosen to communicate “stability,” Poulos, the state’s new turnaround chief, told Chalkbeat. Settle has been with the district since it launched in 2012, and Dandridge is known for moving Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary School from the bottom 2% of schools to the bottom 15%.

“We believe Yolanda has built the relationships with the community needed and has the ability to support everyone in ASD to move it forward and making sure the students are put first,” Poulos said of Dandridge.

Dandridge and Settle are now tasked with the messaging and with smoothing out relationships with charter organizations and the community. In the short term, they are expected to focus on the three elementary schools directly run by the district, two of which, Georgian Hills and Whitney elementary schools, need new principals.

“Often, in situations like this, kids get caught in the crossfire,” Dandridge told Chalkbeat. “Every time there’s turnover, children actually lose in the process. Our goal is to try to move forward, to work with what we’ve already built so at the end of the day, when it’s time for schools to start, we hit the ground running.”