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VOL. 129 | NO. 137 | Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Johnson Returns to Different Schools Reality

By Bill Dries

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When Carol Johnson left as superintendent of Memphis City Schools at about this time in 2007, the system was struggling with Bush-era No Child Left Behind standards and making progress at some schools.


But the number of high-priority or failing schools was growing in Memphis, even as some improved and others were just beginning to be restructured – or “fresh-started” – as a result.

Still Johnson didn’t think then-Gov. Phil Bredesen should move for a state takeover of continually failing schools, which Bredesen was just beginning to talk about.

Bredesen’s comments were the first tremor in a sea change in education at the state level that would segue into the administration of his successor, Bill Haslam.

Haslam established a state-run Achievement School District with a superintendent he appointed for the bottom 5 percent of the state’s public schools in terms of student achievement – the majority of them in Memphis.

Meanwhile, Kriner Cash had arrived as superintendent in 2008 with a reform plan that got to the dark corners of the school system Johnson never reached, only to be supplanted by more sudden changes in 2010 that led to the county’s two public school systems merging for one year before a demerger into seven systems starting with the coming academic year.

Johnson returns to the local education arena as an interim adviser to Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson. She was hired to advise him over the next two to three months and assist in his search for a permanent chief academic officer.

Just about everything in terms of the structure of public education in Shelby County has changed since Johnson left to lead the Boston Public Schools system.

The new school year will begin the rollout of Shelby County Schools’ effort to improve the number of third-graders reading at grade level.

In the move to literacy intervention in the third grade and a larger plan to have more students college- and career-ready by graduation, Hopson did not renew Roderick Richmond as the district’s chief academic officer this spring.

Hopson is also searching for a new head of curriculum and instruction as the school system intensifies its intervention strategies with students who begin to fall behind.

Hopson is not an educator. Neither are most of his cabinet members, which becomes more of a factor as Hopson has gone from interim superintendent to a superintendent with a contract that runs through June 2018. He moves from restructuring the system to the classrooms at which the restructuring is aimed.

With the new academic year, the system starts a “blended learning” trial program in several schools in which students will use digital devices before and after school that are loaded with a curriculum aligned with what happens in the classroom.

Johnson left as superintendent of Memphis City Schools in August 2007, after four years.

She proved to be vulnerable on the nuts and bolts of running the business of schools during her Memphis tenure. Shortly after she left for Boston, the head of Memphis City Schools’ Central Nutrition Center, James Jordan, resigned. The school system’s preliminary internal audit showed more than $3.5 million in losses over a year and a half through wasteful spending, including tons of food bought without a bidding process and left to spoil in a warehouse.

Months after Johnson left, then-Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton Jr. echoed the sentiments of many who saw Johnson as another in a line of educators from outside Memphis who came only for a few years with little interest in tackling the most challenging aspects of turning around the system and regaining the trust and confidence of parents.

“I think to get the kind of (superintendent) we need here, we’re going to have to show him or her that we’re looking for a change agent,” Wharton said in November 2007. “He or she is going to have to be convinced that we as a community – government, parents, education, community, business, state government – all are willing to make a drastic change.”

At the time, Wharton’s idea of a drastic change was a restructuring in which city government would run the school system in some fashion.

Meanwhile, Johnson shook up her cabinet in Boston in 2012, with eight top officials leaving between June and September. Among those who left was the system’s chief academic officer, Cynthia Hays, who lasted less than a year before she became one of five academic officers during Johnson’s five years as superintendent.

Johnson was grappling with some of the same issues seen in Memphis and other public school systems in the years since she left Memphis. But she was also criticized for being at the top of a communication chain that didn’t communicate effectively at the school level.

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