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Annette T. Griffin

Cheerleading for the Good of the System by JAY P. GOLDMAN


Annette Griffin had been on the job as superintendent in Duncanville, Texas, for only a few days in the summer of 1993 when the first major bugaboo crossed her path: Who will coach the high school‘s varsity football team?

This being Texas, Griffin recognized the monumental importance of the moment--especially after two years of in-fighting had failed to land a worthy coach to reverse the team’s sagging Friday night fortunes. She insisted on carrying out the search herself.

"Community members were horrified," recalls Jim Bilhartz Jr., board president at the time. "They said, ‘You’re going to let a woman go out and hire our football coach?’"

Griffin’s choice turned around the program so completely he was spirited away a year later by a wealthy neighboring district. So Griffin went back to the recruiting trail and hired another coach, who promptly led the team to the state playoffs in each of his first two years.

She has vowed to bring the same success to the gridiron in Carrollton-Farmers Branch, a 22,000-student district in the Dallas suburbs where she’s been superintendent since September 1997. Though the district’s three high schools fielded losing records in football last fall, Griffin logged plenty of time on the sidelines, exhorting the players and coaches and, as board president John Tepper puts it half-seriously, "getting in the referee’s face."

Griffin, who admits to slapping her share of shoulder pads, considers herself the district’s chief cheerleader in various respects and says it is not unusual for a superintendent in Texas to take such a hands-on role in interscholastic sports. At the same time, she sees greater significance to this commitment, noting, "If one part of an organization isn’t working, it makes all the wheels dysfunctional."

Griffin has been an adherent to such systemic and global thinking (and an avid follower of Peter Senge) since spending five years as an elected member of the school board in Richardson, Texas, in the 1980s. She chaired the board’s audit and boundary realignment committees, helped to develop the district’s first strategic plan and served as a legislative representative on the state level--experiences that served as a useful prelude to the first of her superintendencies in Southlake, a Fort Worth suburb.

She’s also been influenced by the interdisciplinary studies she has encountered at Harvard University, where she has attended week-long summer institutes for superintendents during the past three years.

In Duncanville, where she spent four years as superintendent, Griffin rallied a culturally diverse community around her positive vision for the local schools. "She said, 'We're setting a goal and we're all going to move in that direction,'" says Bilhartz, a nine-year member of the board.

A self-described change agent, Griffin goes looking for troubling situations. She’s drawn to communities fractured by strained relationships, traumatic events and lack of vision. "I enjoy going into situations that are problematic and the challenge of finding people who want to solve those challenges," she says.

It’s a chief reason why she accepted an invitation to move into her current post in Carrollton-Farmers Branch. In little more than a year, Griffin has restored trust to the board-superintendent relationship, reunited two estranged communities and managed a $200 million bond campaign that captured 88 percent of the popular vote.

Griffin had intimate familiarity with the district and its untapped potential, having spent a year as an elementary principal and two years as assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction in Carrollton-Farmers Branch. At one of her first board meetings after accepting the superintendency, she stunned the seven trustees with her candor, telling them upfront, "If I’m going to be your superintendent, then I’m going to tell you when I think you’re micromanaging and I want you to tell me when you think I’m managing your role."

A former member of the AASA Resolutions Committee, Griffin says she harbors considerable fears about the future of public education, pointing to the rise in home-schooling, the growing support for vouchers and the spread of charter schools. "We’ve not learned to personalize education for our students, to understand if you have kids who can go very, very far and you have kids who need extra time to master the material that we can serve both in all our classrooms," she says.

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: jgoldman@aasa.org