Superintendent search

‘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, is the next leader of the state’s turnaround 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. 

elected school board

In Chicago, not everyone agrees with the grassroots call for an elected school board

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum on the city's next mayor and public schools included, from left, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, Daniel Anello, Jitu Brown, and Beth Swanson

Despite a growing call for an elected school board, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to Chicago’s troubled public school system.

Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum Wednesday evening split on whether an elected school board would offer more public accountability, especially given concerns that factions such as the teachers union would out-organize, and outspend, other candidates.

Daniel Anello, the CEO of school choice group Kids First, said he worried that an election determined by the size of campaign spending wouldn’t necessarily produce a board responsive to student and family needs.

“You need a school board that is representative of the communities we are talking about, but I worry if you take away accountability from the mayor, the mayor can absolve themselves of schools,” said Anello, noting his worries about big money entering a school board election. “My concern is that it is going to turn into a proxy war of ideology.”  

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
The crowd at the Chalkbeat Chicago Education for All event at Malcolm X College

The conversation was part of a larger discussion, hosted by Chalkbeat Chicago and sponsored by a new AT&T economic development initiative called Believe Chicago, about the next mayoral election and the future of city schools. The evening produced little agreement, except that school quality still differs dramatically by the address and race of students, and that the next mayor needs to be willing to have difficult, and even confrontational, conversations.

In addition to Anello, the panelists included Elizabeth Swanson, the vice president of strategy and programs at the Joyce Foundation and the former deputy chief of staff for education for outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel; community organizer Jitu Brown, who led the 2013 hunger strike that saved Dyett High School; and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a county commissioner and newly elected member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Brown, who is the national director for the community education group Journey for Justice, made an impassioned plea for an elected school board, calling it one of the few pathways for communities of color to regain any influence over an education system he argued wasn’t working for them.

“In order for us to hold a system that has never loved us accountable, we must have democracy, we must have decision-making authority around how these institutions function in our community,” Brown said. “Or it a silver bullet? No. But is it a necessary ingredient? Yes.”

Another burning question raised during the night:. Should homegrown schools chief Janice Jackson keep her job?

Brown praised Jackson as a talented teacher and strong principal in the black community before her ascent to the central office — but expressed deep concern that she’s unable to run the district “with her instincts and what she knows how to do.”

“I think her work is highly politicized,” Brown said. “National Teachers Academy was being closed over a land grab, and her position on that was not the right position. Parents had to go to state appellate court in order to get that victory. Situations like that give me pause.”

But Anello and Swanson answered with high praise for the work Jackson has done and strong endorsements for her continuing to run the show at the nation’s third-largest school district.

Anello touted Jackson as a down-to-earth and accessible schools chief.

“If you want to have a conversation with her just pick up the phone,” he said. “That is rare in a school leader. It would be a shame and an absolute mistake to tell her to step down when you have a unicorn.”

Swanson said Jackson’s on-the-ground experience in school communities helps her relate to and inspire educators and school leaders, and her experience managing the $5 billion Chicago Public Schools make her a strong candidate to keep the job, whoever occupies the mayor’s office next year.

“I think Janice is an incredible leader, really unique,” Swanson said.

Panelists also diverged on whether the new mayor should freeze charter school expansion in the city.

Garcia questioned whether the city’s more than 100 charter schools have lived up to their billing as laboratories to experiment with and improve education. Chicago, he said, has “been infected with charter mania,” and instead needs to pivot toward the importance of ensuring current schools are adequately funded.

Anello tried quelling the debate on charters vs. neighborhood schools, arguing that parents are agnostic about school type and more concerned about quality education and good schools for their children.

“I would start by listening to communities and families,” he said.

early childhood

This growing program is addressing Detroit’s literacy crisis — just don’t say it’s filling a “word gap”

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Yuliana Moreno told parents at her LENA Start graduation on Tuesday that her children have become more talkative because of the program.

A small program that started in Detroit last year with an innovative plan to improve infants’ language skills has proved promising and is preparing to expand.

When Concepción Orea entered the program, LENA Start, with her 18-month-old son, the boy was making a few simple sounds. She worried that he was displaying the same delays as her older son, a kindergartner who receives speech therapy.

“Now he grabs a book and pretends to read,” she said, speaking in Spanish at a graduation ceremony for the program on Tuesday. “Watching him pick up more sounds… it’s an emotion I don’t know how to explain.”

Over the course of the free 13-month program, Orea was coached to speak more to her child and read books to him. Her son was outfitted with a recorder that shows his — and her — progress. Each family is asked to place a recording device in a bib near their child’s chest, where it tracks and analyzes the sounds the baby hears at home.

The approach is based on research showing that when parents make a habit of talking to a very young child, that child is more likely to learn to read on grade level, with all the long-term benefits that come with literacy. That’s a big deal in all of the 17 cities where LENA operates, but the stakes are even higher in Detroit, where a tough new “read-or-flunk” state law, taking effect next year, will tighten the screws on a citywide literacy crisis.

“What our data are telling us is that for every one month in LENA Start, there are two months of growth,” said Kenyatta Stephens, Chief Operating Officer of Black Family Development, Inc., one of the program’s funders.

Growth, in this case, mostly means an increase in “turn-taking,” a verbal back-and-forth between parents and children that researchers view as an important sign of healthy language development. Parents are trained to verbalize their thoughts to their children, then look for a response.

A rise in turn-taking also correlates with other benefits: Parents talk to their children more frequently, for one, and kids are exposed to less electronic noise from TVs or cell phones over the course of the program. LENA gives books to parents, and parents typically report reading aloud more to their child.

The program started in Detroit last year with 50 parent-child-pairs. Thanks to promising results, LENA Start’s nonprofit supporters — including Black Family Development, the Kellogg Foundation, the LENA Foundation, the Michigan Children’s Health Access Plan, and Brilliant Detroit — plan to enroll another 150 parent-child pairs in Detroit.

(The Kellogg Foundation funds Chalkbeat. Read our code of ethics here.)

Program leaders say they hope to keep expanding, though the recording technology is pricey.

Using the bib recordings, LENA Start’s computers produce a detailed report for parents. It tells them how much electronic sound the baby is hearing  (differentiating between a computer and a live voice), how much the baby is speaking, and how often the baby “takes turns” in conversation with someone else in the home.

The program draws on  the research of Betty Hart and Todd Risley, the source of the much-cited notion that children from poor families typically hear 30 million fewer words before age three than their non-poor peers. That statistic went viral in academic and nonprofit circles, but it has come under fire in recent years, partly thanks to data collected by LENA programs, which pointed to a gap that is probably closer to 4 million words.

The challenge for program managers in Detroit is working to close the gaps that do exist while rejecting the idea that poor families do less for their children. Framing the problem as a “word gap” can be discouraging to parents and can even cue educators to expect less from children whose families live in poverty.

That may be why Stephens sees the recording data as “an affirmation tool.” Even when parents are stretched thin by poverty, she says they are able to change their speaking habits, especially when they’re given evidence that it is helping their child.

“What’s important is that we’re affirming that they’re already their child’s best teacher,” she said.

That may be one reason that Detroit’s program boasts an unusually high graduation rate — upwards of 90 percent of families compared to the national average of 74 percent.

Graduation ceremonies tend to be loud, Stephens said, because babies become more vocal over the length of the program.

Yuliana Moreno, one of the graduates, entered the program almost by default. She was already at Brilliant Detroit’s Southwest Detroit location at least twice a week before she entered LENA Start, attending infant massage classes for her seven-month-old and English classes for herself.

She said the benefits of the program extended to both of her children, even the one who didn’t attend LENA Start with her. It’s not that she wasn’t talking to them before — it’s just that no one had told her how important her communication could be, and the normal demands of life got in the way.

These days, she reports reading to her children more often, and says she uses her cell phone less while they’re around.