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Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson II reviews the district's long-range goals during Thursday's school board retreat.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson II reviews the district’s long-range goals during Thursday’s school board retreat.

Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN

Shelby County Schools Supt. Hopson sets ambitious academic goals, asks for board members’ support

Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson II and its board members discussed budget cuts, academic goals, its world language program and school start times  during an all-day retreat Thursday.

It was the first retreat since Hopson proposed cutting almost 19 percent, or $227 million, from its budget reflecting anticipated enrollment drops as students transfer to new school districts in the suburbs of Memphis and charter schools and as more schools are run by the state-run Achievement School District. The new budget requires staff and program cuts. Board members failed to vote on the budget earlier this week after parents protested several of the cuts.

Hopson used the retreat Thursday to allow administrators to discuss some of the cuts with board members and to preview some of his long-term academic goals for the district.

Hopson told board members Thursday he wants to have 80 percent of seniors graduate college and career ready, increase the graduation rate to 90 percent and 100 percent of college and career ready graduates enrolled in a postsecondary opportunity by 2025. He named the project  “Goal 2025 80/90/100.”

Currently, SCS’s graduation rate is 70 percent, but only 5.8 percent of those graduates are considered college and career ready, according to national standards. Sixty percent of the SCS students are enrolled in postsecondary education.

Over the next several months, Hopson and his team will work on defining college and career readiness, setting goals and seeking public approval.  All aspects of the initiative would be part of the district’s strategic plan, which would be presented to the board by Dec. 1.

Hopson said he plans to have a presentation about the district’s mission and goal during the April retreat and ask for the board’s public support.

Board members said the district’s current statistics were hard to hear on Thursday.

“Meeting the goals will be hard work, but we’ve got to raise the bar,” said Billy Orgel, SCS board member.  “Right now, we’re below the bar and  we need to improve.”

Members of Hopson’s leadership cabinet gave presentations on  world languages and bell times.  Both issues stemmed from public outcry during last week’s community budget forums. 

In the current 2014-15 budget proposal, SCS is considering reducing the number of world language classes at the elementary and middle school levels.  Alyssa Villarreal, world language advisor, said there are 56 teachers. The district’s proposal requires reducing that by 21 to save more than $1.8 million.

“My concern is that if those programs are cut now, there will be greater inequity for students to access foreign language,” said Villarreal following her presentation.

Hopson’s concern is that in some schools that offer foreign language, students’ scores in their math and reading classes are below state goals such as at Havenview Middle, Ridgeway Middle and Sherwood Middle schools.

“How do we justify spending resources when clearly they need more help on the basics?” Hopson asked board members.

In the budget proposal, Sherwood, Craigmont & Highland Oaks would lose their foreign language programs.  The remaining schools would have a number of foreign language classes reduced.

Board member David Pickler encouraged Hopson to consider keeping as many foreign language classes in the early grades.

“School districts in this country introduce foreign language too late in comparison with schools in other countries,” Pickler said.

Board member Chris Caldwell asked Hopson if he would reinvest in world languages if the district came across an additional $1.8 million.

“That’s not where I would spend it,” Hopson said.

SCS board member Teresa Jones said after hearing arguments about the issue, she was uncertain whether to support the cuts.

“If the (academic) numbers aren’t improving, then students need more exposure to core subjects,” said Jones , who received more than 200 emails from citizens on the issue.  “For me, this is going to be a tough decision.

Hopson said the district’s priorities should be placing effective teachers and leaders into classrooms and investing in them. 

Hitesh Haria, the district’s Chief of Business Operations,  said in a presentation on school start times, it will cost $3.3 million to move from three to two start times.  The move requires more buses and drivers. The administration is proposing that the district outsource its transportation.

Board members seemed to come to a consensus about keeping three start times, but were open to the possibility of later start times.

Toward the end of the meeting, SCS Chief of Security Gerald Darling said students in schools with a high number of violent incidents will be required to carry clear backpacks to schools.  The backpack program will start in the this fall and is paid through a grant.