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VOL. 131 | NO. 235 | Thursday, November 24, 2016

Griffin Helps Memphis Students Beat the Odds

BY LANCE WIEDOWER, Special to The Daily News

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Memphis stands at the threshold of incredible possibility. In this series, we introduce innovative Memphians who are driving our city forward and forging its future success.

Closing the educational achievement gap is one of the hardest and most important challenges Memphians face. For Dr. Sharon Griffin, it starts with creating a supportive environment that allows teachers to innovate and experiment with different strategies.

“This is my calling,” she says. “And once you find your ‘why,’ the ‘what’ of it becomes so much easier.”

Griffin is the regional superintendent of the Innovation Zone, a subset of Shelby County Schools charged with turning around underperforming schools. Specifically, their mission is to move schools from the bottom 5 percent to the top 25 percent.

For Griffin, working with students everyone else has given up on is personal. She herself was written off before she took her first breath.

Sharon Griffin (Ziggy Mack)

“They told my parents, ‘This baby inside of you will never develop into a normal human,’” she says. “They told them, ‘You should not have this child.’”

Griffin is the youngest of 11 children. Her mother was 46 when she became pregnant, but her pregnancy was misdiagnosed as a tumor, Griffin says. Doctors gave her a new, experimental drug to shrink it. After a few months of taking the toxic chemical, additional tests revealed the physicians’ error.

Despite the doctors’ advice, Griffin says, her parents chose to carry the pregnancy to term. Today, their child is leading the effort to lift Shelby County’s failing schools.

“I work with kids that people have written off,” she asserts, “because of their ZIP code. Because their mom or their dad is on drugs.”

“You can believe the stats,” she continues, “but someone has to believe in these kids beyond the stats. Someone has to expect more from them.”

Griffin hadn’t planned to have a career in education. After graduating from Hamilton High, she attended LeMoyne-Owen College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in biology. Her plan was to pursue a career in nursing.

That changed when she participated in a work-study program at the Boys and Girls Club near LeMoyne-Owen. There she interacted with students who didn’t have anywhere to go after school and seldom interacted with adults.

“It was so rewarding to be needed in that sense,” she relates. “I knew I couldn’t let it go.”

Griffin decided to spend an extra year in school and earn a teaching certificate. After that, she spent the next eight years at Frayser High School, teaching biology and physics. Around that time, she began to notice something about her students.

“Many of my chemistry and physics students didn’t have behavioral problems – they just weren’t adequately prepared, academically,” she recalls. “I went to the principal and asked to be assigned to seventh grade so I could reach them earlier.”

Always eager for a challenge, Griffin decided to pursue her master’s degree in administration and her doctorate in leadership from the University of Memphis, all while teaching full time. She later became assistant principal at Frayser, a job she held for five years.

Then, in 2005, Griffin became principal at a turnaround school, Airways Middle.

“Focusing on academics was important,” she says. “But when I went into that school, it was dilapidated. Morale was low. Teacher retention was low. There were so many challenges that were social rather than academic.”

Griffin stayed at Airways for five years and pulled off a successful turnaround. With the help of 17 first-year teachers – young people who “wanted to save the world,” in Griffin’s words – she managed to lift the school off the failing list in three years.

She credits her success to the creation of a positive workplace culture, which manifested itself in strong parental involvement and mentor relationships. Later, she was asked by SCS to lead “Striving Schools” and bring these tactics to 17 failing campuses around the city. Ultimately, she succeeded in turning around seven of them.

For Griffin, it’s about working hard for kids everyone else has given up on. She draws a direct link to her own childhood.

“If my mother and father had listened to the doctors, I would never have been born,” she observes. “They said I’d be mentally disabled, and today I have a doctorate. That’s how I know that my kids can beat the odds.”

Dr. Sharon Griffin is a graduate of New Memphis’ Leadership Development Intensive (LDI). Learn more at newmemphis.org.

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