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Leadership for a new era of public education

dorsey 600Shelby County Schools Supt. Dorsey Hopson – saying he was "humbled and honored" that the Shelby County Schools board has expressed confidence in his leadership – sat down Wednesday with TSD President and Publisher, Bernal E. Smith II, for a wide-ranging conversation.

Hopson reflected on his first year as superintendent, delving into the challenges and opportunities of the newly merged district, the future of public education and his vision for the district. The exchange reflected his style of leadership and his focus on serving the students and achieving results in the midst of ongoing change.

Asked his thoughts on whether contract extension talks now underway are likely to culminate with a new contract within the next two months and prior to the August 7th school board elections, Hopson said he didn't anticipate any concerns.

photo 2-3"The board sought feedback from the community and its been overwhelmingly positive relative to my involvement in the community and ability to set vision and a positive course for the district," said Hopson.

"There won't be any big sticking points or negotiations for more money or anything like that. I suspect that we will be able to get it resolved quickly. I'll also say that some of the candidates for the board have also expressed support and positive sentiments."

And in another trending matter, Hopson said it is not official by any means but there are "some positive indications from the federal government that we may be the official administrator of at least part of the Head Start grant for Shelby County. If and when it does become official, we are prepared to execute."

Here is Part I of the TSD's end-of-the-school-year Q&A with Supt. Hopson:

Bernal E. Smith II: You certainly have to be one of our community's most intriguing leaders and without question have one of its most formidable jobs. What are your reflections on how you came to be SCS superintendent?
Supt. Dorsey Hopson: It's interesting. First, Dr. (Kriner) Cash (Memphis City Schools superintendent) was gone and then Dr. (John) Aitken (superintendent of the old Shelby County Schools system) resigned and then began the questions. Even as I became the interim there were whispers, shouts and doubts about the ability of "this attorney" to handle the district and all the change. There were thoughts that things would fall apart. Truly I felt like that third string quarterback brought off the bench to sling it around and manage not to lose the game.

However, I had perspective and depth of understanding in my favor. I knew the issues of both MCS and SCS as legal counsel for both entities, having counseled both Cash and Aitken on the most difficult challenges facing both districts independently and through the merger. With that depth and breadth of understanding the issues, I was very confident that I could handle the position with sound practical approaches and through building relationships with the team – the principals, the teachers and certainly the families we serve.

BES: You are a product of the public school system here in Memphis and Shelby County, a proud Whitehaven High School graduate. Has being from the area and a product of MCS been helpful in your role as superintendent and in taking on the challenges of the merger and improving student achievement (among others)? Why or why not?
Supt. Hopson: There is no place like home and that can be good and bad. Certainly being from here and realizing the good, the bad and the ugly of the community gives me a unique perspective of this work. I know the history of public education in Memphis and Shelby County. I also know how both school districts have been instrumental in the development of young people over the years.

When we were growing up many of our role models were people who worked in MCS. Scores of principals, coaches and teachers, and of course people like Dr. (Willie W.) Herenton as school superintendent, were influential in our development. When you appreciate how hard so many people have worked over the years, it gave me extra motivation to not only make sure that the school system opened up on time but to make sure that it is a vehicle for providing folks a real opportunity to succeed. ...

(Poverty) is such a huge issue here in Memphis and Shelby County, yet I believe that education is the great equalizer. You cannot choose your parents or who raises you, but you can choose to use education to change your life trajectory. I think it is incumbent upon us to create the conditions and the best system possible so that those who may not have the resources and home environments of more affluent kids still have the opportunity to work hard and use education to change their trajectory and that of generations to come. So that is what really motivates me. A lot of that comes from seeing folks from old MCS and SCS work hard to make sure all kids had an opportunity to succeed in life.

BES: I am familiar with and engaged with some of the Teacher and Leadership Effectiveness work that is being done. I'll say that I am somewhat skeptical of the approaches and assumptions in some of the theory. I do believe that all young people have the capacity to learn and learn at the highest levels, yet when you consider ... the poverty rate and the social ills and challenges that too many of our young people face, do you think we have adequate models in place that take into account the challenges that our young people are facing? Or is there something else out there that allows a district like SCS to more adequately educate and empower that specific student population?
Supt. Hopson: (Those are) excellent questions and I'll start off by saying that the district does its best to deal with the real life circumstances and social ills our kids face, but the reality is the district is simply not equipped to deal with all of that. What that raises in my mind is that we need to have a real community discussion about the ways that not just government but the faith-based community, the corporate community, and everybody can come together to address the socioeconomic concerns.

You hit the nail on the head. If I leave school at 3 o'clock and don't have another meal until I get back to school the next day and then that evening I'm walking through gangland. I may have a teenage sister who has a child of her own or a grandmother working two or more jobs to help take care of me and I just don't have that support system at home. It makes it difficult to study algebra at night or to do that reading assignment.

The school district unfortunately is not equipped to address scenarios or circumstances at home. You can have a rock star teacher that does a great job teaching you the concepts at school and you are getting it but then when you get home you don't have to think about it, you're constantly playing catch up. If we really want to address the poverty issue and its impact, it's really got to be an all-hands-on deck, all-inclusive community approach.

BES: So can effective teachers and school leaders move the mark for our kids in spite of some of the ills and challenges we've discussed?
Supt. Hopson: Absolutely! I have seen extraordinary teachers go into schools that have been chronically underperforming, right in the middle of neighborhoods where all the social ills are and move kids two or three grade levels with exceptional results. The question becomes how do we incentivize and motivate teachers who are at say a White Station to move to a more challenging school such as say a Carver? What incentive do I have to get teachers to take on those greater challenges?

When you look at the data and compare some of our higher performing schools where parental involvement and incomes are higher it is not surprising that the achievement is higher. Not because the kids in the lower socioeconomic neighborhoods can't achieve but because they are dealing with so much more. The dynamics are one group of parents brings their children to school while we have to take the school to the other group of children. We have to make sure they can see, they can hear, that they eat breakfast that they get some behavior therapy.
One of the things that doesn't get talked about is that we have 8, 9, 10, 11 year olds that have seen people get killed, get raped, and other heinous or extreme acts, drug use. And when you are dealing with those kinds of adult issues at that age and you don't get the counseling or support you need, it's going to cause difficulties. No one talks about that, but it is a challenge.

NOTE: In Part II, Supt Hopson discusses strategies for improving the lowest performing schools in the district; innovations in the I-Zone; Common Core in Shelby County; the impact of municipal districts; charters and vouchers; safety, security and school shootings; academic achievement goals, and more! Follow the conversation online Friday at TSDMemphis.com.

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