"An Intense Desire to Do Something Meaningful"

March 30, 2022 by Sara Falligant

School of Education honors late researcher through professorship and doctoral award

As an academic, Jeff Grigg looked the part, down to the tweed sport coats with leather elbow patches.

Early childhood education researcher Jeff Grigg
Assistant Professor Jeff Grigg, who died suddenly in 2019, studied how children’s early life experiences are related to school success, how dangerous school commutes lead to school absenteeism, how changing schools affects student’s performance, and how lead exposure affects educational outcomes.

“Jeff wanted to be a professor,” says Marc Stein, an associate professor in the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University, the managing director of the Baltimore Education Research Consortium (BERC), and one of Grigg’s close friends. “He looked like one; he acted like one; he was one.”

Grigg — an assistant professor in the School of Education who studied early childhood experiences, student mobility, and social stratification — passed away suddenly in 2019 at the age of 42. In 2020, Grigg’s family established an endowed professorship in his name.

It’s an apt tribute to the father of three who cared deeply for Baltimore’s students and committed his scholarship to bettering the city’s early childhood education system.

Associate professor Marc Stein
Associate Professor Marc Stein worked closely with Grigg as the managing director of the Baltimore Education Research Consortium (BERC). The two were close friends.

“Who Jeff was personally was who he was as an academic. The thing that drove him was an intense desire to do something meaningful. It should not be the case that we have scores of children growing up in impoverished conditions that impact not just their educational outcomes, but also their physical and mental health outcomes,” Stein says. “Now Jeff’s not here, but having a professorship named for him is special. There’s meaning to it. Everybody knew that’s who Jeff was, and it’s an incredibly fitting way of honoring his life.”

Lieny Jeon is the inaugural Jeffrey Alexander Grigg Associate Professor in the Department of Advanced Studies in Education. She worked closely with Grigg when both researchers were junior faculty — perfecting grant proposals, discussing challenges, and celebrating achievements.

Jeon now also leads the Baltimore Education Research Consortium’s Early Childhood Data Collaborative, which connects Baltimore early education partners and facilitates data sharing. Grigg previously spearheaded the effort.

inaugural Jeffrey Alexander Grigg Associate Professor in the Department of Advanced Studies in Education Lieny Jeon
As the inaugural Jeffrey Alexander Grigg Associate Professor, Lieny Jeon studies early childhood educators’ social and emotional well-being and workforce development, and the way it impacts young children’s development.

“All the practitioners and policymakers that I work with remember his work,” Jeon says. “It’s bittersweet when I think about it, because he was gone so suddenly, and he had so much that he couldn’t wrap up. It’s great to continue his work and to honor him by contributing more to the early childhood education community in Baltimore City, which was a passion for him.”

Jeon’s primary research focuses on the well-being of early childhood educators. She works with publicly funded programs — including the Baltimore City Health Department, Head Start, and other childcare and pre-K programs — to implement sustainable, evidence-based strategies to improve educators’ work environments, reduce burnout, and increase retention.

Jeon says the professorship has enabled her to spend more time working directly with practitioners and policymakers, instead of searching for ways to fund her research. The professorship has also allowed her to expand her lab to provide more training for the next generation of early childhood education researchers.

“This funding isn’t just supporting an individual researcher,” she explains. “The impact is really about moving an entire field forward.”

Jeffrey A. Grigg Memorial Award winner Zyrashae Smith
Zyrashae Smith is this year’s recipient of the Jeffrey A. Grigg Memorial Award. Her research focuses on college access for minority and low-income students.

As an investigator in the early childhood education arena, Grigg worked to make a difference for Baltimore City’s youngest students. As a professor in the School of Education, his teaching did the same.

“Jeff’s class was the first that I took when I came to the doctoral program. The way that he engaged the class, the way that he taught, it made me feel good; it made me feel confident,” remembers Zyrashae Smith, a PhD candidate.

Smith is this year’s recipient of the Jeffrey A. Grigg Memorial Award. The School of Education established the award in Grigg’s memory, and it is presented annually to a PhD student who demonstrates excellence in Baltimore-focused education research.

Smith, who studies college access for low-income students, says the opportunity is a privilege, especially in the School of Education. But being connected to Grigg is even more meaningful.

“It means a lot to me to be recognized for my work here in Baltimore and to have it linked to someone who was so loved and did such good work,” she says. “Having his name attached to my work is an honor, and I hope that it helps to shine a light on what I’m doing through the work that Jeff did.”

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