Game Changer

Dorsey Hopson keeps busy in first year and a half as schools leader

By Bill Dries

One educator’s reform is another educator’s wrong move.

Dorsey Hopson doesn’t use the word “reform” as often as he uses the term “game changer.”

Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson heads into the schools demerger talking about “game changers” in terms of goals for reading achievement and graduation rates as well as college and career readiness. Hopson himself has become a game changer since becoming interim superintendent in March 2013.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

But the superintendent of Shelby County Schools has himself become a game changer as the school board that signed him to a three-year contract last September weighs a further extension of his three-year contract that for now runs through September 2016.

His most ambitious moves in the year and three months since he became interim superintendent have been in setting goals for daunting student achievement improvements of percentages and other statistics that have deep roots.

“A year ago, the big question was if school would even open on time,” Hopson told the board last month. “We hope that as we move forward into next year we can focus more on student achievement as opposed to operational issues.”

In August, when the new school year begins, students in 16 Shelby County Schools will get digital devices – Lenovo Yoga laptops – that also function as tablets loaded with a “blended learning” curriculum that Hopson hopes will be expanded to all Shelby County Schools.

Dorsey Hopson became superintendent of the county’s two public school systems months before their merger, working with the 23-member transitional school board – and now with the seven-member school board as it prepares to grow to nine members.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

It’s not a curriculum that prepares students for what happens in the classroom. It is part of what happens in the classroom with teachers and school administrators able to monitor and adjust the curriculum to respond to what students are doing when they aren’t in school.

Hopson and school board members saw a version of the program in Huntsville, Ala., schools.

“Almost without exception, students who use these devices do better and they show academic gains,” he said. “Without backing down, we expect 10-point gains. That’s a very strong statement. But I think the research bears it out.”

Like Kriner Cash, the Memphis City Schools superintendent who hired Hopson in 2008 as the school system’s attorney, Hopson is working off demographics in his reform effort.

For Cash, it was the number of overage students, students who moved at least once a school year and students without a primary physician.

For Hopson, the demographics are largely percentages – only 27 percent of third-grade students in the school system are reading at grade level.

Kriner Cash was Hopson’s predecessor in reform efforts Hopson has continued and built on.

(Memphis News File/Lance Murphey)

It’s a single statistic directly from the classroom that Hopson acknowledges has causes outside the classroom and the school. But Hopson hasn’t hesitated to say such challenges are not solely the responsibility of the school system to correct.

The goal that Hopson is now fleshing out with specifics is to have all third-graders in the school system reading at grade level.

And this spring he added a set of goals known as the 80/90/100 plan – 80 percent of Shelby County Schools graduates ready for college or career upon graduation, a 90 percent graduation rate from Shelby County Schools and all SCS graduates enrolled in some kind of post-secondary institution or training – all of those percentage goals to be met by 2025.

“Our starting assumption is that we are around 30 percent college and career ready,” said school system chief innovation officer Brad Leon of the district’s estimate of where students are today.

Leon, who acknowledged that the school system still has to develop a way of assessing career readiness, and his team are to have a plan for Hopson and the school board by Dec. 1 that maps out specific steps to the three-tiered goal for those students now in the system who just completed first grade.

“Obviously when you have a goal that’s longer term in nature, there can be an impression created that maybe you’re putting off the day of accountability,” Leon said. “But really because those first graders are in our system, we are going to have to have aggressive goals along the way for every child throughout the system. We’re going to have to have some ambitious goals for third-grade reading, for seventh-grade math, for those kids and all of the kids in the system.”

Hopson, a Memphis native and Whitehaven High School graduate, whose mother and father are retired educators whose careers were in Memphis City Schools, returned to Memphis from the Atlanta area in 2008.

He had been general counsel for Atlanta schools and the suburban Clayton County Schools system.

Days after taking the job, the Memphis City Council cut city funding to Memphis City Schools, touching off a lawsuit by the school system that the school system won. The move to a schools merger by the Memphis City Schools board followed in late 2010 and Hopson was heavily involved in the numerous legal details and court negotiations of a merger and its aftermath that has been unprecedented.

So much has been unprecedented that at first it was easy to miss that for the first time in anyone’s memory, someone who wasn’t a career educator was running public education in Shelby County.

It wasn’t that it was overlooked.

In January 2013 Cash left and Hopson became interim superintendent of Memphis City Schools. Three months later, Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken left and Hopson became the interim leader of both school systems with four months to the merger and key decisions still not made by the 23-member merger school board.

Hopson initially stated his intention to be an interim superintendent only. He didn’t say he was overwhelmed by the job or describe himself as a caretaker, telling reporters at his first press conference as interim superintendent, “I’m all in.”

The school board had hired a search firm to conduct a national search for a new superintendent, a search that was delayed by the school board indefinitely when the search firm requested more time.

Hopson’s ambitious goals include having all third-graders reading at grade level. He has added a set of goals for student readiness and graduation by 2025, when last year’s first-graders will be seniors.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

Hopson found himself not only making decisions for the school merger that was just around the corner but longer-term decisions as well. And he began having to make recommendations and decisions to the school board about the demerger.

When the merger school board slimmed down to seven members in September, one month into the merger school year, the smaller board at its first meeting authorized negotiations with Hopson to make him permanent superintendent and later that same month approved a three-year contract to Sept. 2, 2016, at a base pay of $269,000 a year.

Since taking the school system’s reins, Hopson has been forced to adopt a superintendent’s version of the combat soldier’s thousand-yard stare. It’s what you might call the three-to-four year stare.

Less than halfway through the first and only year of the schools merger, he was talking about sustaining the system’s Innovation Schools that showed more growth for students in first-year student achievement test results than the state-run Achievement School District schools.

The I-Zone schools come with more federal funding as well as more freedom and flexibility at the school level.

Hopson’s relationship with Achievement Schools District superintendent Chris Barbic has been as competitive as it is cooperative. Hopson has insisted that partial or phased-in school takeovers by the ASD don’t work. So the school system has moved to close schools targeted for such a phase-in.

His list of 10 school closings came with the return of a Woodstock High School in north Shelby County that has proven to be a popular idea with parents in the area weighing a choice between that and the Millington Schools district. And Hopson fashioned a compromise on the closing on Westhaven Elementary School in Southwest Memphis in which a new Westhaven will be built on the site of the old school and will not only replace that school but also nearby Fairley and Raineshaven elementary schools.

“We used a lot of extra cash to get that up and going. … Things of that nature require more money, but at the end of the day what we found is having a great principal, giving that principal the autonomy to select their staff and being able to compensate those teachers a little more has been very successful,” Hopson said in October on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines.” “As we move forward and funds dry up, either you are going to have to do more with less federal dollars or you are going to have to build into your budget and from our standpoint, it’s going to have to be a district priority to come up with ways to support schools not using additional dollars or federal dollars.”

It’s a different strategy for school system budgeting in which there has been a tendency to add such new additions on to the existing budget instead of a comprehensive reordering of funding priorities and assumptions.

Whether Hopson’s goals and the specific steps for meeting them succeed in such a reordering of funding remains to be seen.

Some school board members have already expressed a concern that all of the planning could be discarded well before 2025 with a new superintendent or with a shift on a school board that for now is more aligned with Hopson than its predecessor board ever was with Cash.

That’s one reason the current seven-member board is considering a vote on a contract extension for Hopson before June 23.

Under state law, no school board can extend or approve a contract with a superintendent within 45 days before a school board election or within 30 days after such an election.

With the August school board races, the school board undergoes its third structural change in four years, becoming a nine-member board covering districts that take in all of the city of Memphis and the unincorporated areas of Shelby County but none of the six suburban towns and cities in Shelby County that each have their own separate school systems and elected school boards.

At least four of the nine school board members elected in August will be new to the school board. Incumbent chairman Kevin Woods and board member Teresa Jones represent the two districts not on the ballot this year. Three other incumbents – Billy Orgel, Chris Caldwell and Shante Avant are seeking re-election.

Tennessee law says school boards can hire a superintendent for contract terms of up to four years. A three-year extension would take Hopson’s tenure to September 2019, half of the 12-year arc of the 80/90/100 goal.