History Lesson

Bell rings for unified school district’s milestone year

By Bill Dries

Among the parents registering their children this week for the first year of the consolidated school district were the two men at the top of the organization chart – interim superintendent Dorsey Hopson and deputy superintendent David Stephens.

Spanish teacher Jen Orbik, left, returns a highlighter to business education teacher Patricia Currie in a computer lab at Cordova High School. The school is part of the new Shelby County Schools system. (Daily News/Lance Murphey)

It’s a point Hopson and Stephens have made several times in the last two months as they take a process that began two years and nine months ago to the milestone first day of the new Shelby County Schools’ first year on Monday, Aug. 5.

They and others in Hopson’s cabinet have children who are part of a historic merger.

For parents, history is not the priority as schools are about to open. Where the children pick up from when the last school year ended in May is.

“They are not going to realize the change – that’s what we want to do,” Stephens said. “The kids need that familiarity. They need to understand that we are behind them and we want to see them succeed and that we are there for them. I think sometimes that gets lost.”

The historic nature of the consolidation and its path through the legal process and the political process are now taking a back seat to the annual routines on a new school year – registration, new transportation routes and a final weekend before families get into the school year schedule.

The state of Tennessee’s annual sales tax holiday aimed at parents shopping for back-to-school basics including clothing, school supplies and computers begins Friday, Aug. 2, and ends at midnight Sunday, Aug. 4.

“I think there’s just so much anticipation for the first day of school,” Hopson said as he and his cabinet set up a call center this week to have someone to directly answer phone calls from parents. “It’s just so much to worry about. On the one hand you have to assume that anything that can go wrong will. And you have to figure out how to address that in a way that’s not going to disrupt the learning environment. We worry about so much and probably 80 percent of it doesn’t come to fruition. Hopefully with that track record, once we get school open up and running the kind of collective exhale will happen.”

But Hopson and Stephens were quick to say the work of the transition will simply enter a new phase Monday that is more school-based.

By March, when Hopson became superintendent of both school systems and quickly put together a single cabinet to govern both for the remaining three months left in their existence and the start of the merged school district into its first year, the goal of the consolidation was basic.

The rhetoric of two years and nine months ago when the movement to a merger began was gone. There was little talk left of a “paradigm shift” for local public education by virtue of the consolidation itself.

The school board had still not made the most controversial merger decisions either until Hopson began.

But because he became leader of the effort so close to the merger start date, Hopson has oriented the working assumption away from keeping intact distinctions between the two school systems once the school board made decisions about how the unified system would operate.

“We became a merged legal entity on July 1. We worked up to that for several months. We have been operating under that premise for some time,” Hopson said. “There’s been not even a thought to operating really any vestiges in a separate way. There were some things that weren’t harmonized, athletics for instance. Everything we’ve done has been as a unified district in preparing for the beginning of the school year.”

Hopson also immediately answered questions about how the merger would work with the likely establishment of separate suburban school districts a year from now by repeatedly saying students in those six suburban towns and cities are part of the consolidated school district at least for the coming school year.

Stephens has also worked to combat the inevitable mental tallies among parents and teachers in both legacy school systems about how many of which system’s methods and practices and personnel survived the transition.

“For everybody in our district, there is something that is going to be different,” he said. “Even while we were talking about the merger, both legacy districts were machines that were working. Now we’re changing parts. … It’s a learning curve for everybody.”