Griffin as ASD chief could help relationship with SCS
East Memphis-Midtown Weekly - 5/1/2018
For Dorsey Hopson, Sharon Griffin is family.
He's been known to tell people, if he had 10, 20 or 300 Sharon Griffins, he could change the world.
That's why the Shelby County Schools superintendent is likely still digesting the news that his go-to, right-hand woman will leave next month to head the state's Achievement School District.
The relationship between the local school district and the state-run intervention program is inherently awkward and competitive, with SCS wanting to maintain control of its schools, and the ASD believing outside intervention is necessary.
As such, the relationship between the heads of those two organizations has always been rocky. Students and their families are occasionally caught in the middle, concerned more with receiving a quality education and less with who oversees the school.
But with Griffin in that job, Hopson sees a chance for a reset.
"If I can work with anybody, I can work with Sharon," he said.
Griffin is also confident her appointment will create an improved relationship between the two districts.
"I'm not hoping. It will happen," she said.
First Memphian to hold the job
State Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced Griffin's hiring last week after a months-long search process during which Griffin's name never came up publicly.
What was heard frequently, however, was a call from the Memphis education community that the next person to lead the ASD must come from Memphis.
The state legislature created the ASD in 2012 to take over schools performing academically in the bottom 5 percent across the state. At the time, the majority of those schools were in Memphis, and thus the majority of the work, although based in Nashville, has centered on Memphis.
Of the 32 schools in the ASD today, 30 of them are in Memphis.
In a March public interview with another candidate for the job, residents in Frayser peppered the man from Rhode Island about whether he would relocate to Memphis instead of Nashville if given the job.
"If you're going to have a meaningful relationship with Memphis, you need to be here," Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love said during that meeting.
When the state released a list of four names of semifinalists, only one was from Memphis, but did not move forward in the process after concerns with his references, according to the state.
Griffin, a former teacher in Memphis, is the youngest of 11 children and graduated from Hamilton High in 1986. She stayed in Memphis to earn her bachelor's from LeMoyne-Owen College and her master's and doctorate degrees from University of Memphis.
She also has a track record of improving schools here. A study by Vanderbilt University in 2015 showed schools showed more improvement when they were in the Innovation Zone turnaround program within SCS, which Griffin oversaw, than in the state-run ASD.
Hopson said that connection to Memphis is essential, and gives her credibility with the community. The ASD, he said, has not had enough avenues for families to communicate with the people who oversee their children's schools.
"I think at the end of the day, Sharon's perspective on Memphis, and where these schools really are and what these communities really need, I hope the state will lean on her experience and her knowledge of this community, and that should make the relationship better," he said.
Focus on students
Griffin is known to wander into the children's clothing section of a store and pick up socks, uniforms, hats, whatever she can find that students might need.
"It's so personal," she said in a 2015 interview, when she was head of the iZone. "This is not just a job."
That focus on students, Hopson said, is what gives him hope for a better relationship with the ASD.
"It's got to be about kids," he said. "We've got to figure out a way to change the dialogue between us versus them."
The ASD and SCS have frequently gone head-to-head on issues like sharing student information, a practice SCS has been reluctant to do but one the state says is essential for enrolling enough students to make ASD schools sustainable.
Resolution of those issues remains in question, but Hopson hopes Griffin will bring a "new perspective" for the state.
"The ASD has not met the goals that they set out, and what better way to start to meet those goals than to go out and get somebody who's done it," he said.
In her new role, Griffin will also have a statewide focus that will still allow her to support some SCS schools. Her title will be assistant commissioner of school turnaround and chief of the Achievement School District, and she will consult with schools in the bottom 5 percent across the state–known as Priority Schools–whether or not they are part of the ASD.
"I think all in all, this could have the makings of a win-win for Priority Schools throughout the state," Hopson said.
Reach Jennifer Pignolet at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JenPignolet.