‘I can’t wait to get started,’ says Sharon Griffin on leading Tennessee’s Achievement School District

Sharon Griffin, a longtime leader at Shelby County Schools, will be the next leader of the state’s turnaround district.

Griffin will take the helm of the Achievement School District in late May under the titles of Assistant Commissioner of School Turnaround and Chief of the Achievement School District. She will remain based in Memphis.

During a conference call Tuesday, Griffin said she felt the time was right to join the state-run district and broaden her focus to all low-performing schools, not just those in Memphis.

“My work has always been granting access to great education for all children,” Griffin said. “The outcomes in all priority schools, not just here in [Memphis] but across the state, is not acceptable for any of us. I want to find real ways to collaborate more and share all of the best practices in turnaround work.”

Griffin has been the chief of schools for Shelby County Schools since January 2017 and has been a teacher and leader in Memphis education for more than 25 years.

“The ASD is an important lever in turning around some of the state’s lowest performing schools,” Gov. Bill Haslam said. “Dr. Griffin has proven herself to be a strong leader, and I look forward to having her in this state-wide role.”

Griffin’s appointment follows the September resignation of Malika Anderson, the district’s second superintendent since it launched in 2012. Its vision is to transform Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools by taking over district schools and replacing them with charter organizations.

Griffin will make $180,000 a year in her new role — $10,000 less than Anderson did and about $12,000 more than what she was making with the Memphis district.

Griffin was not among the four superintendent candidates identified last month — though she was being considered by the state at that time, said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen during the Tuesday call. Griffin was selected, in part, due to her deep local credibility — something that people in Memphis had emphasized during one finalist visit.

“We needed someone with a unique background that would have knowledge of Memphis and the ability to look at statewide work,” McQueen said. “We ultimately decided Dr. Griffin is a person who embodies all of this — she’s the right leader at the right time.”

Griffin, a graduate of LeMoyne-Owen College and University of Memphis, has spent her entire career in Memphis schools. In 2012, after starting a turnaround program at Airways Middle School that had some success, she was promoted to lead the Innovation Zone, the district’s home-grown solution to low-performing schools.

The program has grown to more than 20 schools and has often been seen in contrast with the state’s turnaround schools.

Now, as leader of the state’s turnaround district, Griffin will oversee 30 schools — most run by charter organizations in Memphis — at a time when the achievement district has much less authority than when it launched in 2012.

The Achievement School District is considered a tool of last resort under the state’s new education plan unveiled last year. Under-enrollment continues to plague many of its schools and was a big factor in the decisions of four charter operators to close their schools or leave the district.

Assistant Superintendent Angela Whitelaw will replace Griffin at Shelby County Schools as the district looks for her replacement. The Memphis district has also been searching for a chief academic officer ever since Heidi Ramirez resigned in February 2017.

“The outstanding innovative turnaround work in our district continues to garner regional and national attention, so it’s no surprise that our team members are often sought after,” Shelby County Schools leaders said in a statement. “While we don’t want to lose her, we are supportive of her desire to reach her personal and professional goals of supporting students across our state.”

The Achievement School District has had very tenuous relationships with the local districts in Memphis and Nashville — sparring over enrollment, facilities, and sharing student contact information. Griffin said she has the right background to soften these relationships.

“I’m excited about the partnership and collaboration,” Griffin said. “It’s a critical role for us to bridge gaps that are happening across state and in Memphis. I can’t wait to get started.”

The decision was welcome news to Sarah Carpenter, the executive director of parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift.

“Her being a native Memphian, and already here, and already holding people accountable, I think she brings a lot to the table,” said Carpenter, who has students in the Achievement School District.

The state skirted its promised community input process for selecting Griffin as the next leader of the state-run district — due to Griffin’s high-profile district role — but that didn’t bother Carpenter.

“She believes that parents should be involved in every decision they make. Even in Shelby County she wanted parents at the table,” Carpenter said.

Mendell Grinter, the executive director of student advocacy training organization Campaign for School Equity, said the state-run district has been an “integral part of school transformation work in Memphis” and welcomed Griffin’s hiring.

“Dr. Griffin is a proven leader who no doubt has what it takes to lead our schools forward,” he said, adding she can build on the hard lessons the state has learned on the importance of community buy-in to improve schools.

Reporter Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.