New direction

Here’s what Sharon Griffin wants to do in her first month as Tennessee’s new turnaround leader

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Sharon Griffin kicked off her tenure as the Achievement School District’s chief on June 1.

Tennessee’s state-run district faces many challenges as it enters a new era under its third leader in six years, but prominent among them is addressing community pushback and distrust.

Sharon Griffin kicked off her tenure as the Achievement School District’s chief on Friday. One of her first orders of business will be reconnecting the district with the community it serves most — Memphis.

Griffin, a longtime Memphian, said she wants to quickly launch an advisory team of local parents, students, and faith leaders after hearing from the community that they want face time with the district’s leadership.

“I want to provide a face-to-face avenue, something I’ve heard loud and clear that the community wants,” Griffin told Chalkbeat. “I want to give a place and space to voice concerns and support… I know this is going to be a team effort, but I want to work to make sure the community knows they have someone leading the work that they can trust.”  

Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat this week that the state is banking on Griffin as the kind of leader who can re-establish the district’s credibility with the communities it serves — in particular because of her experience in turnaround work in Shelby County, her natural charisma, and her communication skills.  McQueen hopes Griffin can help the district deliver the academic improvements it promised when it was created.

The state Department of Education named Griffin to succeed Malika Anderson, who resigned last fall, in a surprise announcement in April. The turnaround district launched in 2012 as the cornerstone of the state’s strategy to improve the bottom 5 percent of low performing schools. It promised to vault them to the top 25 percent within five years by recruiting charter organizations to run schools. But the district hasn’t produced large academic gains. It’s struggling to attract students and retain high-quality teachers. And local districts don’t like it because the state moved in and took over schools without input.

During her first month on the job, Griffin said she will spend most of her time in Memphis, meeting with leaders in their schools. Of the 30 schools Griffin now leads, 28 are in Memphis, but she is the first chief to live in the city —  something community members have long asked for. She comes from a 25-year career with Shelby County Schools, the city’s traditional school district.   

But McQueen says she believes Griffin can move the district forward. What does that look like? For McQueen, it’s having Griffin focus on three things during her first months at the helm:

  • Improving content and instruction in the classroom, particularly when it comes to early literacy;
  • Recruiting and supporting effective teachers and leaders;
  • Planning strategically and collaboratively with the district’s charter operators.

“Developing high quality charter operators who can do this work and planning for charter growth is very important for the next phase of our work,” McQueen said. “But we know that structure itself is not the magic bullet. The way a school is set up in terms of improvement is only as good as what’s happening in our classrooms.”

Griffin will have her work cut out for her, as the vast majority of elementary, middle, and high school students in the district aren’t scoring on grade level.

But Griffin said greater collaboration — not only among charter operators in the turnaround district but between charter schools and Shelby County Schools — will be a key to improvement. Griffin launched Shelby County’s own turnaround effort, known as the Innovation Zone or the iZone, which has been regarded as more successful than the state-run district.

“We have to be honest about the results and where we are, but I know the results in the ASD will change,” Griffin said. “I’ve had the opportunity to see how the community has responded to both the iZone and the ASD, and we can learn from each other. I believe the collaboration we will focus on in the months moving forward will be phenomenal.”

Though Griffin said she will focus on Memphis in the early months, eventually her role will take her around the state to visit turnaround schools in Nashville and the state’s new partnership zone in Chattanooga. In the partnership zone, state and local leaders will work together to create minidistricts that are freed from many local rules.

In Chattanooga, “we’re looking forward to Dr. Giffin’s advice on the ground, which has so much credibility because of the work she’s already done,” McQueen said. “She has a unique ability to advise us on what’s next, and we’re thrilled for that expertise.”

Super Search

The pressing question at Denver’s final forum: How will Susana Cordova tackle inequity?

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Susana Cordova poses for a portrait in December 2018.

The challenges that Susana Cordova will face if she’s hired next week as superintendent of the Denver school district were laid bare at a public forum Tuesday night.

Standing in a high school cafeteria with a microphone in her hand, the deputy superintendent and sole finalist for the top job faced tough questions about why struggling schools have high numbers of inexperienced teachers, whether she would commit to removing all police officers from schools, and what she would do about what one student called the “charter-ization” of Denver Public Schools — that is, the district’s practice of replacing low-performing district-run schools, sometimes with charter schools.

The most heated and emotional exchanges, however, were about inequities: Why is the district not serving black, Latino, and Native American students as well as white students? Why do test score gaps exist between students from poor families and those from wealthier ones?

Onecia Garcia, a senior at East High School, the city’s largest school and one of its most diverse, told Cordova there is a noticeable gap at East between the kids whose parents have money to pay for tutors and SAT prep courses, and the kids whose parents don’t.

“I want to know what your plan is to get that gap in order,” Garcia said.

In response to Garcia’s question and others like it, Cordova acknowledged that institutional racism exists in Denver Public Schools and has contributed to those gaps. She said the district needs to do a better job informing families about opportunities such as free SAT help and concurrent enrollment classes that allow students to earn college credit while in high school.

Cordova, who grew up in Denver and climbed the district ranks from teacher to her current position of deputy superintendent, talked about making it mandatory for all teachers to undergo training on bias and being culturally responsive, instead of allowing some to opt out.

Cordova said one of her top priorities would be to take the myriad and disparate efforts the district has started over the years to address specific inequities and combine them into one comprehensive plan. She called it “an equity plan that is for all kids, but that also has the specifics for African-American kids, for Latino kids, for low-income kids.”

“It is important that we’re not introducing too many things that you can’t keep a focus,” she said. “I think that’s a valid criticism of the work that we’ve done: We’ve introduced too many things that have made it hard to understand what is the progress that we’re trying to get at.”

But after the forum, Garcia said she didn’t feel Cordova had fully answered the questions. Other students who attended said they felt the same way.

“She wasn’t willing to commit to anything,” said Jonathan Bateman, a freshman at George Washington High School, where the forum was held.

“She answered questions like a politician,” said Carlye Raabe, also a freshman at George Washington.

Cordova emphasized that if she’s hired as superintendent, she’ll approach the job differently than her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, who stepped down in October after nearly 10 years of leading Denver Public Schools. Boasberg was often criticized for not listening to the community.

“I believe deeply in the power of relationships,” Cordova said. “I think it’s really important that we’re not just listening to people who think like I think or who sound like I sound, but who have different experiences, because Denver is an incredibly diverse place.”

The school board is expected to vote Monday on whether to appoint Cordova to the top job.

An Introduction

What you need to know about Aleesia Johnson, IPS’ interim superintendent

PHOTO: Stephanie Wang/Chalkbeat
Aleesia Johnson was named the interim superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools on Friday, Dec. 7, 2018.

Even before she was chosen as interim superintendent last week, Aleesia Johnson was a rising star in Indianapolis Public Schools.

Johnson spearheaded the district’s innovation strategy under departing superintendent Lewis Ferebee, developing controversial partnerships with nonprofit or charter operators and giving schools more freedom.

About Aleesia Johnson, IPS’ new interim superintendent:

  • Johnson started at Indianapolis Public Schools in 2015 overseeing the district’s innovation schools. She was promoted to deputy superintendent of academics earlier this year.
  • Johnson started her career as a teacher through Teach for America. She came to Indianapolis to teach at KIPP Indy and later led the charter network’s middle school. She has also worked for Teach for America’s Indianapolis office.
  • She graduated from Agnes Scott College and received master’s degrees from the University of Michigan and Oakland City University.
  • An Evansville native, Johnson comes from a family of educators. Her mother was a longtime teacher and is now an elementary school principal. Her grandfather was one of the few black administrators in Evansville in the 1970s and 1980s, she said.
  • Johnson has three children who all attend district schools.

Her work overseeing innovation schools — sometimes used as a turnaround approach for the most struggling schools — has transformed the district into a more decentralized, hybrid model that has attracted the national spotlight. Because of innovation schools, Indianapolis is widely regarded by reform advocates as a district among the “most inventive and dynamic in the country,” as the Center on Reinventing Public Education put it last year.

Now Johnson, 40, is the first African-American woman to serve as the district’s superintendent, and she appears a likely contender when the district begins its search for a permanent successor to Ferebee.

“I’m under no illusion of the challenges that face our district and the tough decisions that will have to be made,” Johnson said in a district blog post about her appointment.

As deputy superintendent of academics, Johnson has often been a public face of the district, speaking on panels about racial equity in education and forums about the district’s innovation work. Personable and confident, she’s well respected within the district and in Indianapolis education circles, even though her work with innovation schools can be controversial.

As a key leader in Ferebee’s administration, Johnson is closely tied to charter schools and school reform in Indianapolis. A former Teach for America and KIPP Indy leader, she has said she supports the path the district is on, which means she’ll likely have the support of the majority of the school board. Johnson told the Center on Reinventing Public Education that she was drawn to Indianapolis Public Schools in 2015 because she “connected really strongly with the vision the superintendent laid out.”

“She’s had the opportunity to see first-hand some of our strategy and transformation efforts,” Ferebee said Friday.

Under Johnson’s leadership, the district would likely continue to broaden its innovation strategy. A district of some 30,000 students, made up of mostly students of color and from poor families, Indianapolis Public Schools serves about a quarter of its students in 20 innovation schools.

In interviews, Johnson has often touted how innovation schools can move more nimbly than schools that have to wait for district-level changes.

“I think what we’re trying to do is create a third way of thinking — how do you marry empowering schools with flexibility with lots of the resources that are available to schools in a traditional public schools district structure,” Johnson told the Reinventing America’s Schools project, a pro-charter school reform movement led by David Osborne.

It’s hard to make a blanket statement on the performance of innovation schools. Because most of them are less than three years old, many are graded based on the growth of their students alone without taking into account their proficiency levels. Many of the schools have seen early gains in passing rates on state tests.

Johnson has been upfront about the challenges of the innovation strategy. In the book “Reinventing America’s Schools,” Osborne wrote that she acknowledges “constant problems to be worked out,” such as funding to support innovation schools and uprooting teachers when schools convert to innovation.

“It’s never, ‘No, we can’t do that,’” she said in the book. “It’s, ‘Oh, we’ve never done that, so let’s talk about it and figure out how to get it done.’”

In an interview with the local Indy Education blog, Johnson said she invites critics to see the changes strong leaders can make in innovation schools.

She also said innovation can allow community members to feel like they have ownership of the schools in their neighborhood: “I see this work as an incredible opportunity for there to be, unlike ever before, a much stronger community voice, much stronger way for parents to interact and engage in their schools.”

Still, Johnson was careful to note Friday that she won’t be a carbon-copy of her former boss, who has both won the hearts of many national reformers and rankled community members with the dramatic changes to the district. “I think obviously I am a different leader,” she said.

She won’t be immune to criticism. The IPS Community Coalition, a grassroots group that is critical of innovation schools, posted on Facebook about Johnson’s appointment to interim superintendent: “Although that is a great milestone for IPS in terms of equity and diversity, we have continued concern about the IPS agenda. The statement this appointment makes about pushing innovation schools and charter ‘choices’ on poor, and black and brown students is concerning — as charters have not proved to be more effective, nor equitable in their treatment of students.”

Others, though, including school board members, have heralded her appointment. Andrew Pillow, a teacher who worked with Johnson at KIPP Indy, wrote on the Indy Education blog that Johnson is “infinitely qualified and the perfect choice to lead Indianapolis Public Schools.”

So far, Johnson has said she will wait until the school board decides the superintendent search process to say whether she’s throwing her hat in the ring to lead the district long-term.

Asked again in her first television interview as interim superintendent this week, she said, “We shall see.”