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Shelby County Schools superintendent rallies support for 2025 plan

Students at Cummings Elementary School in Memphis participate in a rally to build community support for Superintendent Dorsey Hopson's 10-year vision plan for Shelby County Schools. Cummings was one of eight Tennessee schools honored April 10 by the state Board of Education.
Students at Cummings Elementary School in Memphis participate in a rally to build community support for Superintendent Dorsey Hopson's 10-year vision plan for Shelby County Schools. Cummings was one of eight Tennessee schools honored April 10 by the state Board of Education.
D. Burnette

Cummings Elementary School is considered an academic “jewel” in south Memphis for fostering community support and raising student test scores in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

On Wednesday, Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson used the math magnet school as the backdrop to rally community support for his “Destination 2025” vision plan, which would replicate Cummings’ success throughout the beleaguered district.

Hopson outlined a five-point plan to get at least 80 percent of the district’s students college- or career-ready; 90 percent to graduate on time; and 100 percent of college- or career-ready students to enroll in college or other post-secondary career opportunities. Currently, just 11 percent of the district’s 100,000 students – mostly black and mostly poor – are college- or career-ready based on ACT scores, with only 40 percent of its seniors going on to college.

In order to meet the goals approved last April by the school board, Hopson said administrators must vastly improve the teaching force, increase access to pre-kindergarten programs, better engage the community, and provide better school choices for students.

“This is a heavy lift, and it’s going to take more than just teachers,” Hopson said. “This is going to take a village.”

The rally featured cheering students decked in red, a performance by the high-stepping Whitehaven High School drum line, and a surprise appearance by “Grizz,” the mascot of the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies, who at one point dipped Chief Academic Officer Heidi Ramirez and gave her a kiss.

Hopson – a Memphis Whitehaven High School graduate and lawyer by trade – is in his second year on the job. During presentations and conversations with business leaders and philanthropists, he regularly refers to “Destination 2025” as driving his day-to-day decisions and has dubbed the 80/90/100 goals as a “call to action.”

Pockets of poverty

Created in a historic merger with Memphis City Schools in 2013 and now the state’s largest public school district, Shelby County Schools has struggled with an exodus of students, massive budget cuts, and the looming threat of the state taking over of almost a third of its low-performing schools. Hopson must propose this month ways to cut another estimated $50 million from the district’s budget for the 2015-16 school year.

To meet the challenges, Hopson has given principals more autonomy in hiring, proposed dramatic changes in the way teachers are compensated, and closed several schools to consolidate, cut costs and place students in front of better-performing teachers.

Literacy is a particular challenge in Memphis and Shelby County. Two-thirds of the district’s third-graders and half of its 8th-graders don’t read at grade level. This weekend, Ramirez is training teachers about blending literacy skills into every classroom lesson, no matter the subject.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson
Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson
Daarel Burnette II

From downtown Memphis to the county’s suburbs, a large portion of the district’s students come from pockets of entrenched poverty, where related challenges include absent guardians, a high student mobility rate and a large special education population.

Some of Hopson’s initiatives such as the district’s Innovation Zone – a cluster of low-performing schools with special flexibilities under state law – have proven successful, while others such merit-based pay increases for teachers have drawn large protests from educators.

The audience at Wednesday’s rally included school board members, philanthropists, community partners and community activists. Several praised 80-90-100 goals as inspiring and the vision as a road map to the future.

Whitehaven PTA member Dee Moore has been working to get parents, many of whom work two or more jobs, to register their children for pre-kindergarten classes and attend parent-teacher conferences. She said Hopson’s speech was inspiring. “We have to help get this done,” Moore said.

Beacon of hope

Cummings sits in the historic Soulsville USA neighborhood. Home to Stax Recoreds and once famous for the musicians who grew up here, the median household income hovers around $20,000. More than 20 percent of the homes are vacant.

In the last five years, administrators have closed at least five schools in the community because of substandard academics or low enrollment. The school board will decide later this month whether to close two more schools less than a mile from Cummings to avoid state takeover.

But Cummings stands as a beacon of hope. A laboratory school for LeMoyne-Owen College students, it is one of the district’s optional schools, meaning students have to perform well academically to enroll and stay at the school. This year, Cummings was recognized as a distinguished Title I school for closing achievement gaps between special education and mainstream students.

Principal Lisa Frieson has worked with local churches and businesses to provide students with after-school tutoring and social services to clamp down on issues such as truancy and hunger. “We need the adults to step in and support these children,” she said.

Eighth-grader Christian Brown described a rigorous course schedule that starts with literacy and ends with a class dedicated to studying. While he likes the school’s focus on math, he itches for a creative outlet. He pointed out that the school’s trophy case is full of medals for art, music and debate clubs – many programs which no longer exist because of budget cuts and raised academic standards.

Christian Brown
Christian Brown
Daarel Burnette II

On his way out, Hopson stopped Christian in the hallway and asked about his plans after leaving Cummings. Christian told him he wants to be a scientist and has been considering several high schools. East High School sent him a letter of interest, he said, but he prefers Whitehaven since he wants to travel the world one day. While Hopson cut several language programs across the city last year, he spared the programs at Whitehaven, which offers classes in French, German, Spanish, Chinese, Russian and Arabic.

Just a few minutes earlier, Hopson told Christian and his peers: “You can do amazing things, anything you put your mind to, if you work hard. You can be teachers, doctors, lawyers and on and on. I can’t wait to see you in 2025.”

Contact Daarel Burnette II at dburnette@chalkbeat.org or 901-260-3705.

Follow us on Twitter: @Daarel, @chalkbeattn.

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