Karanja A. Ajanaku: When the board did its last evaluation … you got high water marks relative to … community engagement and … needs improvement relative to staff development. What does that staff development mean and what’s the difference between then and now?
Supt. Dorsey E. Hopson: Firstly, I do want to thank the board. … I’ve been evaluated three times, all of them are exceeds … expectations. … I think that the feedback was good feedback … around developing or making sure we have transition plans and kind of make sure that there are people on deck to be able to do the work…
I think that because our central office is so lean, you wish you had a few more people, so that there would be natural kind of number twos in every department. We just don’t have number twos in most departments. … But, not withstanding (the leanness), that (transition plans) … are gonna be baked in all my reports of direct evaluation: What is your succession plan? If you leave tomorrow, who’s gonna be able to step in? And, if you don’t have somebody, then the expectation is that people would be developed along those lines.
KAA: Who handles human resources for you?
Supt. Hopson: Trinette Small is my Chief of Human (Resources). …She’s actually been there for … at least two and a half, three years now. … I don’t want to say main job, but (a) very important function is recruiting teachers.
We’ve got 6,000 teachers every year; we hire about 1,500 teachers. That is a huge bulk of resources (devoted to) recruiting and hiring teachers, supporting teachers, evaluating teachers and things of that nature. … We’ve got to also be just as strategic and thoughtful around all staff and positions.
KAA: If a teacher is moved out of a school, … they have to compete or go find another job, right? Did that use to be handled in house, through the human resources (department)? And if so, why did it change?
Supt. Hopson: Here’s what used to happen: … Central office would just say, “You’re going out to this school; this is where you’re gonna go.” (The) statute changed … right around the merger time (of Shelby County Schools and Memphis City Schools). And, there’s a new statute that calls for … mutual consent. In other words, a teacher has to want to be there and the principal has to want them there. You can’t force place anybody. …
I think at the end of the day, it’s probably a good concept, because if a principal’s gonna be responsible for results, they should be given … the autonomy and flexibility to be able to hire their staff. The challenging part (is that) over the past few years we’ve always been trying to juggle all these budgetary issues. … If you’re gonna lose enrollment over the next year, teachers may get laid off and then they have to go through the period of trying to find another job. And I know that created a lot of angst not knowing if you’re … gonna have a job, going on all these different interviews.
This year, fortunately, … we’ve decided we’re not laying any teachers off. … Some enrollment will go down, enrollment will go up in different places. So we’re just gonna work really hard to make sure we match those teachers where the needs are. And, if they don’t find positions in schools, we have some other positions that we put in the budget that we think teachers would be well suited for.
For example, we’ve added some interventionist teacher positions. The state has come up with a different strategy over the last couple years where the bottom 15 percent of all kids have to have additional support. Teachers have been telling me for the last couple years, “We just don’t have enough time to do that within the instructional day.” We figure adding some of those teachers directly in the schools that need it the most will … lessen the burden of teachers in the classroom, but … give a certified teacher an opportunity to work with the kids that need it the most.
KAA: Let’s talk about perception and reality. They’re not always the same, as you know. …The perception of the city’s schools is still often one of “they’re not safe.” … And, secondly, the perception that (the schools) are not something that you can use as a selling tool for business. … So, speak to those perceptions and how you see that matching up to what’s real.
Supt. Hopson: We’ll be doing a presentation at the May board meeting around the data. (By) … all statistically significant indicators around safety in schools or incidents in schools, we’re down double digits – down double digits in simple assaults, which is just fights; down double digits in weapons. Chief Gerald Darling has done an outstanding job. He and his department have won a national award I think three out of the last four years. I would say that, based on the data, our schools are the safest they’ve been in 10 years. …
Obviously, we do have to fight perception issues because you may have one fight and somebody videotapes it and it becomes, “This is what’s going on in schools.” But, I think it’s really remarkable, given the spike in violence and other incidents that are going on in the community. Because what we know is that what happens in schools … are usually just a microcosm of the community. When you’ve got all of these violent crimes going on around these schools, but then the incidents inside the schools are dramatically down, I think there’s something to be celebrated.
…You don’t want to pat your back because one bad day could turn that whole thing around. We’re going to continue to stay vigilant, continue to implement best practices and hope we continue to drive those indicators down. …And then, it takes time to get past perception. People have good and bad perceptions for different reasons about the school systems and government in general. … Some of the feedback I’ve gotten is well, a) we need to tell our story more and talk up a lot of good work that goes on and b), just keep on producing data that reflects some of the positive things. …
KAA: What is the most real criticism of the school system?
Supt. Hopson: I think that we have far too many schools that the student outcomes are nowhere near where we want them to be. …When people say (there are) too many quote, unquote failing schools, I think that’s just a fact. But I don’t want to undermine the good work that goes on in these schools every single day. I’ve visited all of our priority schools. … I would invite anybody to come … with me and go see some of the teaching and learning that goes on in these schools….
The reality is … that you have a teacher that’s firing on all cylinders, the principal could be firing on all cylinders, you can deliver the lesson in the most wonderful way, and the kids can get it. But then they have these home issues and these poverty issues that impact the learning environment. … (To) the extent the criticism is, “They got too many failing schools,” … that’s what the data shows. But I think that that’s just part of the story.
We’re investing more resources than ever in our priority schools. We’ve got over 20 iZone schools that we basically invest around a half a million dollars more per school. …I think the focus on improving those low performing schools is there, but that still doesn’t negate the fact that the data suggests that we have lots of schools that are not getting the student outcomes that we’d like to get.
KAA: What’s the graduation rate for high schools now?
Supt. Hopson: That’s something we’re proud of. I think the graduation rate was 79 percent last year. When we started, it was 71, 72 percent. …We’re actually tracking toward that 90 percent graduation rate that we want in 2025. …In addition to continuing to push the graduation rate, we’ve got to make sure that when kids graduate, they are prepared for college or for a career.
KAA: How do you measure that?
Supt. Hopson: I think that the way that the state has done the new end of course testing really measures college readiness. And, I know we’ve got a long way to go there as a state. …I think that where we really need to focus on moving forward is the career readiness piece. … We spend millions of dollars on CTE (Career and Technical Education). … It’s kind of a hodge-podge of different classes and what we need to be focused on is (that) every CTE pathway needs to be able to result in a work certificate, so our kids can go out and get a job. …
Bernal E. Smith II: How is the district building relationships with the business community around making sure that there’s continuity between what’s being taught and what the demand will be? And … just as importantly, job placement opportunities for students?
Supt. Hopson: … (M)aybe back in October or November, (we) kicked off a relationship with the business community and they’ve been great around trying to figure out …where are the jobs … and really help us with (a) strategic plan: Where are the jobs? How do we partner with the folks that have the jobs? … And then, what does it look like to say, “Well, if the jobs are going to be in, you know, computer sciences, then what do we need to be teaching … to make sure these kids are going to come and be ready to go to work? …
(W)e put in this budget about a $5 million dollar investment so we can … revamp and then strengthen the areas that are already doing well. But then, toss out … what’s not doing well and make sure that we have a program of work where kids can come out and get jobs, if they choose not to go to college. Because right now, there’s no reason why kids can’t enroll in post-secondary opportunity in Tennessee. … You can go to community college for free … You can go to some of these technical education schools for free. … Again, we’re proud of the graduation rate going up, but we want parents to know, “OK, if you graduated, then you are college or career ready.”
BES II: Talk about this year’s budget cycle versus previous years. …
Supt. Hopson: I’m just really proud of … my CFO and the team for just being thoughtful. … You go through a budget process, but the budget work goes on all year long. …I want to thank the County Commission because over the last two years, they’ve been very supportive. They’ve given us close to $40 million dollar increases over the last two years.
In addition to that, we just continue to look for efficiencies. … every department budget we’re consistently looking at. If we see areas where we’re either spending money that’s not effective or we’re spending money and there’s no return on investment, then we just reallocate those resources. …
(We) for the first time have sat down and said, “All right, now we have money to be strategic.” And, “I think your budget reflects your priorities.” I’m just proud to say that we are investing an unprecedented, $50 million back into the schoolhouse. …
Last year, we did our greater schools, greater community campaign. And a lot of that was just listening to them. We said to parents and teachers and stakeholders, “what do you want to see in schools.” And people really almost without exception, said, “We need more bodies in schools.” …Teacher’s are asked to do so much now, and without really any support. …
Probably seven or eight years ago, we had all this additional support in schools, then the city cut the funding, and a lot of that stuff was cut … cut, cut, cut, cut. So, we’ve added a lot of strategic positions back to schools that should directly support teachers and give them the space that they need … or start to give them the space that they need to teach kids.
A big bet on teacher compensation this year, I think around $11.5 million that we were excited about. And, I think just starting to think about some of the social and emotional support that our kids need.
BES II: Right.
Supt. Hopson: And one of the things I’m very excited about (is the) Superintendent’s Learning Academy. …We said, “All right, we’ve got so many kids who are tier 2 and tier 3 in the state’s framework” and teachers said, “We don’t have enough time for these kids.” So, what we said was, “What would it look like if we have 5,000, 5500 kids who are tier 2 and tier 3, we let them come to school for eight weeks in the summer for free. They spend half the day with reading, half the day with math, and then some time before-care and aftercare. And it’s all free to our neediest kids.”
I think that we’ll be able to track their performance and really believe that (with) the work that they get, they won’t have a summer loss. …You’ll start to see that pay off down the line. … We actually had about 8,000 people to respond in the timeframes. So, we figured out a way to just go and pay for everybody.
BES II: …Historically, there’s always been a lag between when school starts and students actually fully enroll and start coming to school. … How do you incentivize those students to go to school also in the summer when it’s hard to get kids to even start school when the regular school year begins?
Supt. Hopson: I think that most of the people that we see do a lot of late enrollment … from enrollment time to Labor Day … are the older kids. … We knew, too, that parents not having to worry about childcare would also be a great draw. …
So, if a kid comes and they have sporadic attendance or they’re not putting forth the effort, then we’re not going to let them come, because there are kids who are waiting to come. …Certainly the chronically absent kids who don’t enroll until late in August and early September remain a problem. …I think the number went down a little bit last year, but I think that that’s also a community problem. We just have to figure it out together.
BES II: In terms of a lot of those challenges, the social constructs and the issue of poverty and other things, what creative things has your administration done in addition to engage the faith-based community, the non-profit community, etc., to help families outside of the things … that’s just not in your core ability to deliver?
Supt. Hopson: We have a community engagement office that consistently seeks partnerships with the faith-based community and business community. And, I think that people are always willing to help, but I think we even have to do more. One of the things we’ve been kicking around is, is there a way … to have kind of a community outreach effort that’s just not focused solely on the schools. …Because at the end of the day … you hit the nail on the head. It’s about these communities. …