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Supt. Dorsey Hopson reflects on SCS tenure, looks ahead

Shelby County Schools Supt. Dorsey Hopson made strategic use of the word “sugarcoat” several times last week as he spoke to the Frayser Exchange Club, recounting his tenure and delivering somewhat of a SCS report card.

“While we certainly have a long way to go – I don’t want to sugarcoat this – we have come an extraordinarily long way,” Hopson

The setting was Impact Baptist Church & Ministries at 2025 Clifton Ave. Shelby County Schools Board Member Stephanie Love, who represents the Frayser area, introduced Hopson.

“We need an impenetrable net to make sure we are there for our kids and also create conditions where our kids can succeed in life.” – SCS Supt. Dorsey Hopson (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

“We’ve gotten a lot of great work done, especially for the Frayser community. “We’re building a school addition at Delano Optional,” said Love. “We’ve also been able to increase the funding in our schools. We’re funding our schools based on need and not necessarily the numbers, which is something that I think all of our students will benefit from.”

Five years ago, Hopson was asked to wind down the old Memphis City Schools system and later stepped into the role of SCS superintendent.

“What I thought about then was utter chaos,” Hopson recalled. “We had a $100 million deficit. We had laid off about 900 people. We had just this culture of us vs. them ….I remember seeing polls from some of the news outlets about whether schools would even open in August 2013.”

One example of forward motion is the fiscal move from deficit to surpluses the last couple of years, he said.

“That allowed us to refocus our resources and really start back to investing our resources in schools. Under the board’s direction, last year we invested about $50 million. This year we’ve invested about $60 million directly in schools,” he said.

Hopson then zeroed in on equity, which he said means “taking kids who have traditionally received less and giving them more in order to close gaps that have formed over generations.”

What does that look like?

“We’ve been really focused on increasing the number of Pre-K seats that we have. … We know … that the biggest indicator of how our kids are going to do academically is whether kids are reading on grade level when they leave third grade.”

Hopson said state assessment results show “the third-graders this year … had about 5.5 percent gain, which is unheard of. Those third-graders are the Pre-K kids that started five years ago.”

Reality check: Many children don’t come from ideal situations, have challenges at home and need support, Hopson said.

“It’s easy to say, ‘alright, these kids are far behind. We are going to love on them … and not push them and expose them to the work that they have to do every day.’ But we say, no, we are not going to do that.”

Last year, that resolve included exposing students to standards-based curriculum, with the intent of at least letting them know what the expectations would be going forward. There was a cost associated with that decision and pushback from some quarters.

Saying he appreciated the SCS board support and amplifying on the pushback, Hopson noted that some in the community took the position that “our kids can’t achieve at a high level. Why are we spending money on kids that can’t do it? Let’s just love on them and they do the best they can.”

Equity also comes into play with facilities, he said.

“Learning environments matter. …They built a $90-plus million high school out in Collierville. … It’s absolutely what kids should be exposed to. The reality is that 25 five miles away are (SCS) school situations where there are enormous maintenance needs, ceilings falling in. …

“All kids should be exposed to these high-quality learning environments. What we have been able to do is been very strategic about trying to build new schools in traditionally underserved communities.”

The SCS shift in its funding structure has provided more flexibility in “how we … support kids in a way that makes the most sense; that gives all kids the best chance to succeed,” Hopson said.

As he made reference to success at improving academic achievement at priority schools, Hopson noted that former SCS turnaround specialist Sharon Griffin now leads the state-run Achievement School District, which has many Memphis schools.

“I think the best chance to truly get the ASD on track is to take a proven leader, who knows how to work in priority schools, who has shown herself consistently…and put her in the middle of a situation that some call hopeless.”

Hopson said Griffin’s focus on the ASD will continue to push the SCS iZone (schools) and “we will continue to push her. At the end of the day, a rising tide is going to lift all boats. …

“For years, we’ve had this kind of competition…kind of push and pull because we’ve had limited resources. …But we’ve all got to be on the same page. We don’t have time to be fighting against each other, particularly when we have so many kids so far behind. “

Hopson devoted the last of his talk to “compassion.”

“…We have tremendous need right in Frayser and right here in Memphis. … We have 40,000 of our 100,000-plus kids living in households where the income is less than $10,000 a year. That creates such significant social and emotional needs.”

Don’t get numb to the need, Hopson said.

“Even though we are doing a much better job and even though we’ve shown some progress, we still have 70 percent-plus of our third-graders not reading on grade level.”

It’s necessary as a community to figure out how to address the needs, Hopson said.

“How do we in a smart way, with all of our collective resources, bring them together? …We need an impenetrable net to make sure we are there for our kids and also create conditions where our kids can succeed in life.”

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