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Penny Schwinn visits with students at a school in Rutherford County in February, soon after becoming education commissioner in Tennessee. (Photo courtesy of Tennessee Department of Education)

Penny Schwinn visits with students at a school in Rutherford County in February, soon after becoming education commissioner in Tennessee. (Photo courtesy of Tennessee Department of Education)

Inner circle: Here’s who education chief Penny Schwinn will lean on in Tennessee

Less than three months into the job, Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn has filled six of her nine cabinet positions with a mix of new hires, retentions, and promotions as she begins to restructure one of the state’s highest-profile departments.

Schwinn, who took the helm of the 600-employee education department in early February, said she wants to have her entire team of top advisers in place by July 1, the start of a new fiscal and school year.

For her chief of staff, Schwinn has picked Rebecca Shah, who worked at the Texas Education Agency where Schwinn served as deputy commissioner of academics before Gov. Bill Lee hired her to be Tennessee education chief.

“She ran performance management for me in Texas, so she really knows what I’m looking for in terms of data collection and holding us internally accountable,” Schwinn said of Shah.

Her deputy commissioner will be Amity Schuyler, soon departing as the superintendent’s chief of staff in Palm Beach County, Florida, the nation’s 10th largest school district.

Schwinn is still hunting for a chief district officer and an assistant commissioner of communications and engagement. But atop her list of vacancies to fill is chief academic officer.

“I am picky,” Schwinn said of that role, “because that’s when you think about what goes in front of our kids every day, and the instructional materials that they use, and the teacher in front of them. The chief academic officer is really leading in terms of executing that vision.”

The jobs are among a dozen high-level openings listed on the state’s website, including assistant commissioner of school improvement.

Sharon Griffin, hired last year to run the state’s highest-profile school turnaround program, will keep that role at the Achievement School District, Schwinn told Chalkbeat this week. However, under a revised chain of command, Griffin will report directly to a new chief schools officer instead of to the commissioner, as she had under Candice McQueen, Schwinn’s predecessor.

While reorganizing is common for a new commissioner, Schwinn’s hires thus far show she is leaning on some experience and institutional knowledge from within Tennessee’s education department while also recruiting a few key outsiders.


Retained from McQueen’s cabinet are Christy Ballard, the department’s general counsel, and Assistant Commissioner Elizabeth Fiveash, who oversees legislative affairs and policy and maintains a daily presence on Capitol Hill when the General Assembly is in session.

Promoted from within are Eve Carney, who as chief schools officer will oversee school improvement initiatives including the Achievement School District; and Sam Pearcy, who as chief operating officer will look after finance, information technology, procurement, and school services.

Carney joined the department in 2008 and previously administered federal grants programs. Pearcy, who has been with the department since 2013, has focused most recently on improving state efficiency to support school districts.

Schwinn said her new organizational chart, which is slated to go into effect on May 1, was developed with feedback from district superintendents.


The restructuring shrinks the commissioner’s cabinet-level advisers from 11 to nine and also scales down the number of people reporting directly to Schwinn. Below is the organizational chart from last fall, before the change in administrations.


The arrivals under Schwinn coincide with some high-level departures.

McQueen’s chief of staff, Laura Encalade, left along with former communications director Sara Gast to work for their former boss in McQueen’s new role as CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, a nonprofit organization focused on attracting, developing, and keeping high-quality educators.

Chief Financial Officer Chis Foley was dismissed by Schwinn.

Others, like former deputy commissioner Kathleen Airhart and former chief academic officer Vicki Kirk, accepted other jobs before the change in administrations. 

Lyle Ailshie, who as deputy commissioner stepped in as the department’s interim leader before Schwinn started, is expected to retire mid-year and return to East Tennessee, where the state’s 2005 Superintendent of the Year oversaw districts in Kingsport and Greeneville.

Meanwhile, Schwinn has moved her family to Tennessee after commuting on weekends to Austin during her first months on the job. The oldest of her two daughters is a student in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.