(With his first year as superintendent now a matter of record, Shelby County Schools Supt. Dorsey Hopson reflected on the historic first year of the merged district with TSD President and Publisher, Bernal E. Smith II. Here is Part II of that wide-ranging conversation.)
Bernal E. Smith II: You have spoken publicly about the need to be sure that all of the students and schools in the bottom five percent of state achievement have some intentional treatment designed to raise student achievement. Would you update us on the effort to meet this need?
Supt. Dorsey Hopson: I think the focus really has to be on chronically underperforming as opposed to just the bottom five percent. At the end of the day, I’m not comfortable and you wouldn’t be comfortable either, with sending your child to a school in the bottom 10 percent much less five percent. We are considering a number of strategies. But the most important is trying to make sure that every classroom, no matter what school, has an effective teacher in it.
So the personnel policies and practices we have are implementing are to ensure that the principals have what is called, “mutual consent.” In other words, every teacher in that building knows what they are responsible for, wants to be there, and the principal has to want them there. That has been a huge shift culturally. We used to do a lot of forced placement, a lot of transfers, just because … so just making sure that the principal has the right to hire who they want to, and the teachers, when they go somewhere, want to be there. That has been a huge change in philosophy and practice.
We are also doing some very exciting things in the iZone, which specifically serves bottom five percent schools. A lot of that has to do with extended school days. The board recently passed the purchase of a $5 million investment for blended learning devices. We are piloting in 16 schools to provide every child in those schools a laptop or other device with the curriculum on it. So they can take it home and have access to their curriculum 24 hours a day. We are focusing a majority of those devices in the schools that have been chronically underperforming.
BES: Is this elementary through high school or a combination of ages/grades?
Supt. Hopson: It is mostly elementary and middle. We are doing it as a pilot program. We went out to Huntsville, Ala. a few months ago to shadow their program. They’ve implemented a similar initiative and they’ve seen tremendous gains. Los Angeles Unified Schools has also implemented a similar program. We went out there to review their implementation and they too have seen tremendous gains.
What want to do is to intentionally pick a select group of schools, pilot it, and then measure hopefully strong results, and ultimately expand it throughout the district. Increased technology, more flexibility and aligned hiring practices, and extended days where appropriate are just some of the strategies we are using.
BES: So that (implementing the new technology program and allowing kids to take the devices home) brings up the issue of safety. There are threats of damage, theft and even physical harm to students carrying expensive devices. How is the district addressing that issue?
Supt. Hopson: You ask a great question. We obviously get a chance to learn from the mistakes that Huntsville and L.A. and other places have made. All of the devices have a disabling and locating system on them. So if they are stolen or lost, the people that own the device can find out where it is. We are going to have a full professional development training session with the teachers on how to use it. The parents have to sign an agreement. We’ve reached out to the police department and the district attorney’s office to coordinate with them a campaign message to let folks know that you don’t want to be caught stealing one of these devices. If somebody gets one, it will be worthless. And because of the contract we have with the provider, they assume the risk of that.
We know that people are going to break them. People are going to try to steal them. People are going to try to misuse them. But even given that risk, the reward to our young people is extremely high and outweighs the downside. If you are a kid and you are struggling with a subject, you can leave class and go home and work on it at your own pace. Conversely, if you are a high flyer, you can get way down the curriculum on your own and essentially challenge yourself or be challenged to do more.
The research and actual results of implementation in other places have been outstanding. In 2014, kids are using iPhones and computers, and it is just the next wave on the way we need to educate these kids and the way they are comfortable receiving information.
BES: So the next big thing in terms of educational issues and language is the whole Common Core implementation. You have acknowledged that in Tennessee we are generally going to start off very low compared to other states in Common Core assessments. Have you been able to sort of refine or assess that as it relates to Shelby County in terms of where we are going to end up or what we will look like relative to Common Core once fully implemented?
Supt. Hopson: Well, I think that the state has done a remarkable job of training principals and teachers to be ready for Common Core. I think our professional development department has done a really good job of getting the folks ready. And in some schools, Kate Bond comes to mind, they have already been teaching the Common Core standards.
So I think that as with anything, when you raise the standards or raise the bar, you probably will see a dip in achievement. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think that we need an honest assessment as to how our kids are doing nationally. And I don’t think you will find anybody that will argue with the premise that we want to challenge our kids with more rigorous standards. So I think that like all districts across the country, we will have challenges with implementation, but with proper training and preparation we will be ready.
BES: OK. So, this upcoming school year, we will see even more changes within the Shelby County public school system. We’ve got suburban school districts coming online. Talk about that challenge for the district and what that looks like going forward.
Supt. Hopson: Our biggest challenge and what I challenge the staff to do next year and always is to stay focused on student achievement. The thing to talk about this year was the busses and operations and general transition, and we’ve done that. I think it was a very successful year by all accounts. But we have got to get back to focusing the discussion on student achievement.
Our board adopted a real ambitious goal based on our recommendation that we call the 80, 90, 100 Plan, which essentially means we want 80 percent of our kids (not 20 or 25) to be college or career ready. We want 90 percent of our kids graduating and in those college or career ready kids, we want 100 percent of them to be involved in some sort of post-secondary opportunity. That is the focus and primary challenge for us. We are aligning everything that we do to that. Now the focus is having our full strategic plan developed by December. We are laying the road map to establish the vision, culture, priorities and goals not only for next year but for the next five to ten years even in an ever evolving environment.
BES: You’ve helped lead the district through the initial merger yet you have another range of transitions in play. The landscape of public education now includes charter schools, ASD (Achievement School District), and the soon to be opened suburban districts. Public education looks much different than ever before with little to no chance of reverting to days past. There is the lingering proposition of vouchers that may be passed at some point given the make-up of the state legislature. How do you view this volatile and ever-changing environment as the leader of SCS? What is the unique position/role for SCS in the midst of that ever-changing landscape?
Supt. Hopson: I start from the premise that I just want there to be great schools. I don’t care who’s operating them. If you have got a school that was run by MCS or SCS for years and couldn’t get it done but have a charter that can come in and get it done for the kids, then I don’t care who operates it. But knowing where we are, I have to be mindful of the need to carefully plan for the staff and operations of the schools that we are responsible for. I have a very positive working relationship with Chris Barbic at ASD, a good relationship with charter operators.
So my statement to them is, “We have to work with a singleness of vision to improve the overall quality of education for ALL kids in Memphis and Shelby County, particularly for kids in the lower socio-economic class because that’s where we have failed previously.” If they can come in and do it better, I am willing to work with anybody. But we have to make sure we have a uniform framework – school performance framework – for all schools whether it’s an SCS school or an ASD school or a charter school. Once we build a performance framework we can better help students and parents to be more successful in the ultimate goal of educating the student.
I’ve challenged our team that we need to have a legitimate report card for all schools. If I am a parent, I ask, “What’s best for my kid?” We must set a fairly uniform criteria and framework for guiding students and parents on what the success map looks like. Frankly, there is competition from all the different kinds of educational options that challenges everyone to step it up. Consider our iZone schools and they outperformed everybody in the state. And I expect them to do it again this year. So, it is a brave new world, but it is one that I’m excited about because at the end of the day if it raises student achievement throughout the county, I am all for that.
Conversely, just like we close poor performing schools that we operate, I think you will see us being aggressive about the charter schools. If they are performing poorly, we will look to close them as well. We don’t want them to have schools just for the sake of having schools no matter what label is on them. It is ultimately about student achievement/success.
BES: Since you’ve opened the door regarding school closure, I’ll walk on through it. Certainly it is a hot-button issue that becomes emotional, particularly for people in the neighborhood communities being directly impacted. What’s your approach to closing those schools and addressing legitimate issues brought up by parents and community leaders regarding the negative impacts of school closings. You have passionate people fighting for schools like Northside, Westwood and Carver among others saying, “SCS, don’t close my school. You’re hurting our kids and our community.” How do you respond?
Supt. Hopson: That has, by far, been the toughest issue that we have had to deal with. Even before I became superintendent it was a gut-wrenching issue. It is something that people all across the country are grappling with. … (If) we are honest about our student enrollment, our facilities, what’s going on with the ASD and charter schools – if we are honest about that, then the data clearly says that we are going to need to close some more schools. I think that part of the strategic planning process will be to look at what areas are under-populated or oversaturated with schools, particularly poor performing schools, and then we will come up with another plan by the end of the year as to what other schools need to be closed.
There are very legitimate concerns that people are passionate about: A. That’s my school. B. That’s in my neighborhood. C. Don’t board up that building and bring that blight to my community. D. Why are all the schools being closed in the African-American community? You know, all those issues are dead-on, and it evokes passion. But what I am equally passionate about is the ultimate best development opportunity for the child. If I’m a kid and I’m going to a school that is one-third utilized or less … I can’t have a robust program of work, AP classes, and many extra-curricular activities that make a good school a great one or a bad one good. You can’t have a good sports team – there’s insufficient support for the school overall – then I am equally passionate about us not providing those students…
For example, in North Memphis when considering the decision to close schools I drove down Chelsea and around Vollintine…literally you had Klondike, Vollintine, Caldwell, Guthrie, and Gordon Elementary Schools within a two mile radius of each other – all under-enrolled, several of them underperforming. That’s just not a recipe for success. We combined the schools and made sure they got more resources, more technological support and more administrative support. If you combine the schools and create a better opportunity, as opposed to trying to keep five half-empty schools, you surely have an opportunity for better results, a chance to better serve the students.
BES: Ultimately that sounds ideal, however, in many instances you still end up with empty and blighted buildings. Has there been any discussion with the City of Memphis, non-profit leaders and other community leaders about how to repurpose the buildings so that you don’t have additional blight and issues that are crated around having empty, boarded up facilities in the heart of communities?
Supt. Hopson: That’s an excellent question. And I have met with Mayor (A C Wharton Jr.) and Robert Lipscomb (director of Housing and Community Development) on at least three occasions now. They are collecting and reviewing the data and we are about to roll out a city repurposing plan, because the same thing that is going on with the schools is going on with the fire stations and police stations and community centers. We have all of these facilities that are essentially right on top of each other. …
“So a plan is under way and I think people will be excited about it. What we have discussed and what I have been assured of is when this next wave of closures comes about, we are going to have a whole lot more support from the city. They have mentioned “no blight” zones anywhere within two miles of the school – obviously a drug free zone, a crime free zone, as well.
BES: What about overall safety and security for the students in and around schools?
Supt. Hopson: We’ve got a great relationship and a coordinated effort with both the Memphis Police Department and the Shelby County Sheriff. I know that earlier this year a lot of focus was on instances where kids were bringing weapons to school, but I want to commend our security personnel in conjunction with the MPD and the Sheriff’s Department. They had a great year. We do almost weekly briefings for both entities, and they have people specifically assigned to every type of crime that could affect the schools both in and around schools. Whether it’s gangs, whether it’s drugs or truancy or whatever – there is a lot of coordination that goes on behind the scenes between the MPD and the Sheriff’s Department.
BES: Along those lines, is the school system prepared at the highest level for the phenomenon of school shootings and those kinds of situations?
Supt. Hopson: The Sheriff’s Department has a great active shooter(s) training simulation. I know that the MPD is trained and all our security folks are trained. God forbid that it should ever happen, but the training is there and it is in place. I hope it is something that we never have to experience, but I am confident that if there is an active shooter spotted in and around a campus, they will be prepared for it.
BES: In wrapping up, what’s at the heart of your vision for SCS? Talk about your vision for the future of public education in Shelby County. What does this district look like in 5 years?
Supt. Hopson: The heart of the vision is us creating the best structure to create circumstances for kids to change their lot in life, particularly in impoverished kids. And I start there. I don’t want to end there. Oftentimes we always talk about the poor performing schools, but we have so many high performing schools and high performing students. We don’t want to leave them behind. But I think that what we have to do is have all of our focus on making sure we get to where we need to be in terms of 80, 90, 100.
We also have to change the culture of central office. Because somewhere along the line, I think that some people forgot that central office is here to support the schools. Not the other way around. We’ve got to be nimble and flexible and customer service oriented in everything we do. Whether we are sweeping floors or making decisions on million dollar contracts, it has to be done to support schools. We need to be supporting our principals so that our principals can be supporting teachers so that they can change teacher practices to lead to better student results….
If I can get us on the right track with that and help us stay focused on what needs to happen every year ... by 2025, we will be 80 percent college and career ready, 90 percent graduation, 100 percent post secondary opportunities. …
(A) lot of times with big school districts, we have the flavor of the day and let’s try this, let’s try that, but I just want us to be focused on what needs to happen to achieve that vision. Strategies change and come and go, but we stick with the goal and stick with the premise, I think we can have some extraordinary things here within Shelby County Schools. That is my expectation, extraordinary results.