After Griffith Announces Resignation, Sorrow, Respect Hang Heavy

Griffith leaving Shaker High due to personal, districtwide changes; teachers, parents, students dismayed

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After Principal Michael Griffith announced his resignation during a faculty meeting today, the reaction among teachers, students and parents was universal: sorrow.

“I’m just going to start to cry,” guidance counselor Elizabeth Vokes, who had already teared up,  said after Griffith’s announcement. “Fantastic man. It’s a shame that it has come to this.”

Griffith’s resignation is effective June 30. He will become the Head of School at The Lillian and Betty Ratner School, a Montessori school in Pepper Pike.

While announcing his resignation in the small auditorium after school today, he continually wiped away tears. “Fifteen years ago, I came here. I was a 39-year-old, snot-nosed kid, didn’t know a damn thing about a comprehensive high school,” he told faculty. “The people in this room and those who sat the watch before you were patient with the kid. They helped me grow.”

“I tried to listen. I hope I did well,” said Griffith. “I hope the student got passing marks.”

The district hired Griffith to replace Jack Rumbaugh as the high school’s principal in 2000. Under his tenure, the high school has implemented the International Baccalaureate Programme and adjusted to expanded state-mandated testing and teacher evaluations. The New York Times wrote a feature about Shaker’s programs combatting the achievement gap in 2005, which Griffith has framed in his office. In the past 15 years, dozens of Shaker students have won National Merit Scholarships, placed in the National History Day competition, traveled abroad in school-sponsored exchange programs or musical performances and earned other accolades.

“[Griffith] has great leadership skills, was approachable and always continued to make Shaker one of the best districts,” said Shaker parent Maria Coutinho. “I will be sad to see him go.”

Freshman Chad Hamilton, who said Griffith’s announcement “shocked” him, agreed. “He’s a very respectful person, leader, and he wanted the best for his school and students,” he said. “He cared for each one of them and I hope he succeeds and does well at Ratner.”

A 2007 Shaker Life Magazine profile of Griffith said his move to Shaker seemed fated.

“[H]e seems custom-designed for the job,” wrote Nancy O’Connor in the feature. “He brings to the position unique perspectives based on personal experiences, professional capabilities, and educational philosophies: He grew up with very little, but today lives comfortably in the Mercer area; he was educated in Catholic schools but has worked extensively in public school systems; . . . he has taught in elementary classrooms as well as graduate school lecture halls.”

He’s going to be a hard act to follow, and we’re going to miss him . . . It’s a lot to process right now.”

— Keaf Holliday

Griffith’s three children have all graduated from Shaker schools.

“I always thought Mr. Griffith was a great principal and even though I only had a few interactions with him, he said ‘Hi’ to me and smiled whenever he saw me,” said senior Elana Ross. “I think he really impacted Shaker in a positive way.”

Art teacher Keaf Holliday, who said Griffith’s announcement rendered him “speechless,” agreed that Griffith has led Shaker High well. “He’s going to be a hard act to follow, and we’re going to miss him,” said Holliday. “It’s a lot to process right now.”

Griffith himself is still processing his move. “I’m obviously to some degree a mixed bag, you know, struggling with the thought of and the reality of leaving a place that I’ve been for 15 years, that’s been just a tremendous experience for me as a person, in terms of my own growth, for all three of my children, and for the experiences that I’ve had in working with young people here and their families and the staff, the faculty and staff,” he said in an interview before the meeting.

“At the same time there’s excitement for a new journey, a new part of the journey I should say, and a new opportunity that will also challenge me to grow and to be a better person and to build new initiatives and be part of a new community.”

“There’s no doubt that Shaker has been the most exceptional experience that I’ve ever had in my life professionally,” said Griffith. “I could never do another high school. I could never be a principal of another high school. There’s no way I could ever top what this has been. So this has been beyond magnificent.”

Educating toddlers through eighth graders, Ratner School provides a new learning environment for Griffith. Moreover, he said, “it has so many of the same attributes that I would need to have in any school I would be a part of.”

“There’s diversity, there’s a lot of needs in terms of trying to help young people grow and develop, there’s tremendous community that supports the schools, and it has its own unique mission and vision,” said Griffith. Due to his position as Ratner’s Head of School, which he compared to a superintendency, “it has a lot for me to learn about in terms of administration and working with boards and dealing with endowments and fundraising and other kinds of elements that I’ve not had tons of experience in, so there was a lot of room for growth and a very special, unique environment, much like Shaker has been a very special, unique place.”

“I’m truly sad to see him go,” said junior Max Markey. “In his past 15 years at Shaker he has gained the trust and support of the student body, and I think it can be said that it’s due to his leadership and approachability. His constant support of co-curricular activities and various student endeavors has helped to allow students to grow both in and out of the classroom.”

“[Griffith] has always been one to look to for answers,” said senior Kyle Davis in a text interview. “And whatever answer he gives is always the positive one. His leaving will affect us tremendously. Students and staff love Mr. G! I know I do. I’m just glad he was here all my four years.”

There’s been no one particular, individual person or unique incident that caused this to happen to me. In terms of the choice, I think it’s the whole thing.”

— Michael Griffith

“I do believe that Mr. Griffith contributed to the atmosphere in a positive way because of his passion for Shaker due to his enrolling his kids here,” said senior Olivia Hamilton in a text interview. “I think since his kids are somewhat our age he is more understanding of a high schooler’s life and wants to make the high school the most welcoming atmosphere for us. It says a lot when he sends his own kids here and it shows how great of a school district Shaker is.”

Griffith credited personal and districtwide transitions for spurring his move. “A piece of it is personal, in the sense that there’s a lot of transition going on in my own life. I’m recently engaged, four of the five children between our two families will be graduating from college, my youngest son is a sophomore — rising junior — in college, and so there’s a lot of transition and change and new going on there,” he said before the meeting. “There’s also a transition in the district and so when I tried to weigh all of those things together, my thoughts came to the conclusion that for me, at this point in my life, that it was time for a different road, a different path in the journey.”

“There’s no particular change or transition here in the district that influenced me to say it’s time,” said Griffith. “You start thinking about where I can give, knowing that in my mind I am thinking that I have another 10, maybe 12 years that I’d like to work . . . Part of it is weighing all of that. So there is no one particular issue or person or incident within the district that influenced me in one direction or another.”

“In my heart, I’ve always had a sense of duty and a sense of loyalty, and that is to this institution, and trying to balance my sense of myself and my sense of my duty to Shaker,” said Griffith. “Having done that, no one thing really alone was a driver. I think it’s the whole perspective of all of it together that kind of leads you. So there’s been no one particular, individual person or unique incident that caused this to happen to me. In terms of the choice, I think it’s the whole thing.”

Senior Phoebe Potiker, the student body president, said Griffith’s commitment to Shaker made him a “beacon of light for all students.”

“Growing up in Shaker schools, it is difficult for me to fathom Shaker Heights High School without Mr. Griffith. You can’t think of one without the other,” she wrote in a text interview. “He has worked so hard to create what the high school is today and what Shaker stands for as a district. For me he’s the face of SHHS and I’m so glad he was my principal for all four years and he will definitely be a difficult one to replace. Mr. Griffith will be an amazing addition to Ratner School, but his resignation will be a huge loss to Shaker schools.”

“From the position of Student Body President, he was such an amazing resource,” said Potiker. “Not only was Mr. Griffith an asset to student council, but he was a positive face any student could turn to to rely on in a time of need.”

Although he will no longer work in Shaker schools, Griffith said he will remain involved in Shaker’s community. “There are games and concerts and Sankofa and other events and other ways that I would be here. I would not put off any thoughts of me trying to be a voice and contributing in other ways,” he said. “I don’t know what those would be into the future, but Shaker Heights is my home, has been my home, it’s where my children were raised, and it means the world to me and I will always try to find ways to be connected to the community and to the school. No doubt.”

During the faculty meeting, a teacher shouted out that Griffith should join the Board of Education. Enthusiastic cheers ensued, along with offers to volunteer and campaign for him.

[Griffith] has worked so hard to create what the high school is today and what Shaker stands for as a district. For me he’s the face of SHHS.”

— Phoebe Potiker

“I think I might have a following,” Griffith laughed.

Shaker parent Mike Campanelli agreed. “Mr. Griffith was an excellent principal,” he said. “I hope the school can change his mind to see if he can stay at Shaker.”

Griffith expressed optimism about remaining connected with the community. However, he was visibly upset about leaving Shaker. Teary-eyed throughout the faculty meeting, he said, “This is the last thing I wanted to do.”

He said he considered new directions and initiatives more challenging to the district than new philosophies. “The fundamental beliefs of the district are not changed, so there’s no issue at all with me in terms of alignment. We want to do everything we can that’s best for kids, said Griffith. “I think some of the challenges that, as a building, as a staff, that we all face, is just the volume of initiatives on top of what already exists and on top of the direction that the state, through the legislature, is going, and so what we have is a significant amount of push and initiatives going on all at once.”

“If there are any challenges that we have all faced as an administrative team, it’s trying to narrow that so that our energies are in one direction and therefore the rewards of that energy being truly what’s best for kids is all in one direction,” said Griffith. “And so I think we all have a challenge — the school board, the community, the leadership, down to the building — of trying to wade through all of this and come up with the best answer for how to get the right balance. I think that we’re not there yet and I think we’ll continue to be, in the short run, in a balancing act that will take some time to get in place. It means putting some things off, you know, and recognizing what’s directly in front of people, and it means understanding and having the relationship with people to have a good feel for how that’s pushing them and what consequences it has and how much it takes away from how much they’re able to give to their students and to each other.”

“It’s no one initiative, it’s the state, it’s our choices — meaning we create the strategic plan as a community, and did — it’s a choice of how the timing of all those things roll out and understanding how they all interconnect and what the impact is on what we’re trying to accomplish together,” Griffith said.

Shaker parent Andrew Cohen said, “I think Mr. Griffith had a good handle on how to relate to the kids but at the same time keep discipline in the school.”

“[Griffith] has been the principal for all three of my kids so my reaction to the news is a little bit of sadness and some concern as to who they are going to get to replace him,” said Cohen. “There have been a lot of incidents at the middle school over the years where discipline seems to get out of hand and that never seemed to happen at the high school with Mr. Griffith, so I hope whoever they get to replace him can do the same.”

Freshman Ryan Young also worried about replacing Griffith. “I’ve only been at the high school for about a year, but I can tell that Mr. Griffith has a really good handle on everything going on at the high school,” he said. “He’s got the right personality to be the principal at a school as large and diverse as Shaker. I think it will be very hard to find a successor who will fit into the district like he does.”

I think Mr. Griffith had a good handle on how to relate to the kids but at the same time keep discipline in the school.”

— Andrew Cohen

“I hope the next principal will be as connected to Shaker as Mr. Griffith was,” said Hamilton. “It was great to see the diversity Mr. Griffith brought to the school being an African American male. He will be greatly missed.”

Griffith admitted having concerns about bringing in new leadership while districtwide changes occur, but expressed confidence in Shaker High’s faculty to ease his replacement’s transition.

“We have tremendous faculty; a very, very strong and cohesive set of department chairs, who do a lot of the hard work within the staff; all of which then leads to the students and the instruction and assessments, and all these other pieces that are in play — we have a really outstanding guidance department — so the areas where there’s direct student connection are very strong,” said Griffith before the meeting. “So while there is change, and any change at the head seat of the building, the principal of the building, is challenging, the person walks into a very solid structure and very, very solid leadership among all of the groups within the staff that they can lean on, and it gives them time to get to know the rest of the building and the community and the students and the district.”

He restated that faith during the faculty meeting. “I know the department chairs here, faculty senate, the staff as a whole, counselors and the leadership here,  you are rock solid,” he said. “If needed, put an appropriate foot where you put it for me to challenge them [the new principal] to be the best they can be.”

In the meantime, Griffith told faculty, “There’s a lot that we still have to get done between now and June 30 — staff hiring, mapping out some goals for next year. My eye is not off this prize.”

“Know that my heart knows that this place and you and the parents and the students will persist. The call that you have, the mission that you have stood by will go nowhere because you won’t let it, because you are that caring and that committed,” said Griffith during the meeting. “Shaker Heights High School is the only high school I will ever have in my heart.”

In a letter sent to district parents shortly after today’s faculty meeting, Superintendent Gregory C. Hutchings, Jr. expressed his sorrow about Griffith’s departure. “It is always bittersweet when a member of our Shaker family decides to make a career transition outside the District,” he wrote. “That said, Mike has been offered a wonderful opportunity, and I know you will join me in wishing him every success as he begins this new chapter in his career.”

“He’s more than just a principal,” said physical education teacher Marc Enie, who has taught at the high school for 18 years. “No matter what meeting he was going into, no matter how much he had on his plate, if you’re like, ‘Mike, I have a question,’ he always found a way to work you in and help you out. It’s gonna be tough. We’re going to miss him. A lot.”

 

Web Managing Editor John Vodrey, Editor in Chief Marcia Brown, Campus and City Editor Sara Mesiano and Staff Reporters Ose Arheghan and Grace Lougheed contributed reporting.

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