With more than a quarter of its schools deemed failing and at risk of being taken over by the state, Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson hired Sharon Griffin, a hard-charging, no-nonsense Memphis native, to oversee what has become a life-saving turnaround experiment.
That was in 2012. Tennessee’s legislature had just passed a law allowing the state’s education agency to take the reins of the state’s worst-performing schools and either run them directly or hand them over to a charter operator, a move that stood to drain potentially millions of state-aid dollars from the already financially struggling district. But a clause in the law allowed for districts to try out their own interventions using some federal money and flexibility from the state’s cumbersome K-12 policies.
In Shelby County, which includes the city of Memphis, that clause led to the creation of the district’s Innovation Zone, or “iZone.” As its leader, Griffin has instilled a corporate and rapid intervention style that’s brought her some renown across the country. Her success in the role also recently led to a promotion—Hopson named Griffin as his chief of schools in January.
“When I first met her, the one thing that came across is her passion for turnaround work,” says Hopson. “Even more so than turnaround work, she wants to improve the life circumstances for these poor black and brown kids. That was evident in her sense of urgency and her no-excuses mindset.”
Several of the district’s iZone schools now outperform the district’s schools that are run by the state. Many opposed to the state takeover model being replicated elsewhere point to Memphis’ success as evidence that with resources and room to experiment, homegrown educators are best suited to turn around schools in the most academically dire circumstances.
“With the right resources, the whole premise was to create a school where principals have empowerment, teachers have the supports they need and kids’ needs are addressed first,” Griffin says. “I saw this as a prime opportunity. To me, the fact that if we didn’t transform these schools, that we could lose schools, the tougher the situation is, the more energy I get.”
The iZone includes 21 schools this year and it received a $10 million grant from local philanthropists last year to expand. Scaling up to that number of schools has created challenges for Griffin that she’s taken head-on this school year, impressing board members and district officials alike. Many of her professional-development programs for teachers and principals are being duplicated across the district.
“She has boundless energy,” says Brad Leon, the district’s chief of strategy and performance management. “Despite the success she’s had, she’s on a mission to get better every single day.”
Griffin meanwhile, has toured the country as states look for new strategies to improve their most struggling schools. The federal School Improvement Grant program has been retired, and under the new Every Student Succeeds Act, districts will have more flexibility along with a percentage of federal funds to roll out locally honed strategies for turnaround.
At a Houston conference for legislators and state school board members in November, Griffin rattled off the iZone’s strategies, many of them in use in other schools and fairly easy to replicate. There’s an extra hour of instruction tacked onto the end of the school day. Teachers receive $1,000 signing bonuses for working in the schools and then another $1,000 bonus for meeting district benchmarks. All students receive iPads. And principals have free rein to hire their staff.
It comes at a price tag of more than $22 million a year for the district.
But many in Memphis say what makes the iZone so successful, and perhaps more difficult to replicate, is Griffin’s passion, leadership style, and her division’s nimble and custom-built infrastructure.
“She fully understands that the children are at the heart of the work that she does and that her obligation is to them,” says Tonye Smith-McBride, a longtime colleague and curriculum coach for principals in the iZone. “But at the same time, she’s concerned about the welfare of the teachers, principals, and custodial workers in the building and she expresses that on a daily basis. She’s helping everybody do well. You don’t want to disappoint her because she’s working 100 hours a week to do whatever she can for you.”
In many ways, Griffin knows how to improve student outcomes in some of Memphis’ most difficult environments because she’s lived it.
Griffin, 48, was born and raised in South Memphis, where she attended LeMoyne Owen College, got her start as a teacher, and then later became a principal.
The area was hit hard by the foreclosure crisis, and today its littered, winding streets are pockmarked with boarded-up homes and corners that serve as makeshift memorials for victims of gun violence.
Eviction rates, coupled with the city’s struggling manufacturing and service industries, have led many families to frequently move. These problems seep into the local schools.
But Griffin’s approach is to exploit a community’s assets and attack its liabilities.
She pores over data and talks to staff and community members to understand a school’s population, culture, and academic challenges. Griffin hires principals whose skills and experience match schools’ needs, then gives them flexibility to respond to neighborhood conditions.
I believe a school shouldn’t have to be in critical condition to get help.
Monekea M. Smith, the principal of Griffin’s alma mater, Hamilton High School, hired a vice principal who spends a large portion of time searching for and meeting with students who dropped out. Its graduation rate improved this year, from 49 percent to 73 percent.
The iZone has worked with local nonprofit groups to build in wrap-around services at the schools. Social workers and teachers make frequent visits to students’ homes, local nurses visit the schools, and the district placed washers and dryers in schools to reduce chronic absenteeism.
“Poverty isn’t going anywhere,” Griffin says. “It didn’t happen overnight and we can’t fix it overnight. The question is, what systems are we putting in place so that we can address it?”
As the head of the iZone, Griffin led a team of 20 math, science, and English/language arts curriculum coaches, sometimes referred to as her disciples. On a weekly basis, she and her team members walked iZone schools’ hallways with principals to observe classrooms and meet with support staff.
It was here, observers say, where Griffin has been most impactful.
Griffin can often be seen in the corner of a classroom, anxiously jotting down notes on a yellow pad.
Are students laying their heads down on their desks? How many are raising their hands to answer teachers’ questions? Are they explaining how they came to their answer?
Her feedback, staff members say, is direct, specific, and practical.
“She’s very hands-on,” says Corey Kelly, the principal of Sherwood Middle School. “If something isn’t going right, they’ll let us know.”
And if Griffin doesn’t think a principal or teacher is working, she’s quick to replace them. In her time as the iZone chief, Griffin replaced nine principals.
It’s this wide array of hard and soft approaches that’s led to the iZone’s success, observers say.
One early evaluation points to the promise of the iZone’s strategies. A 2015 Vanderbilt University study concluded that iZone schools outperform those that were taken over by the state and given to charter school operators to lead the turnaround work.
This past year, the iZone’s enrollment doubled to include more than 10,000 students.
Undaunted, Griffin moved to keep pace. She doubled the staff and hired more principals and teachers willing to work in the schools.
To make the work even more challenging, the state last year changed its learning standards and rolled out a new statewide test. To help iZone teachers adapt, Griffin designed a new professional development program.
“As we’re shifting to the new standards, it’s going to be very difficult for the iZone,” says Hopson. “This is a group of schools that were performing pretty low on the old standards.”
Griffin has also pushed for the state legislature to permanently put in place many of the strategies she uses in iZone schools for all of the state’s schools with hyper-concentrated poverty.
“I believe a school shouldn’t have to be in critical condition to get help,” Griffin says. “These things needs to be a part of regular school day anyway. School turnaround is necessary, but I don’t like the fact that a school has to be backward to be turned around.”