Memphians weighing in on whether Superintendent Dorsey Hopson should stay on two more years are using a proposed contract extension as a referendum on Shelby County Schools.
A two-hour hearing on Tuesday night drew principals, parents and community leaders, most of which spoke in favor of a proposal to extend Hopson’s contract beyond next summer. But some parents said that too many students have been left out of Hopson’s initiatives for the beleaguered district.
Shelby County Schools has made significant academic gains in recent years, especially among its lowest-performing schools. But gaping disparities remain for poor and minority students, and ACT scores suggest that just 7 percent are ready for college.
An attorney and graduate of Memphis City Schools, Hopson has led Tennessee’s largest school system since the historic 2013 merger of the mostly black city district with the mostly white suburban county district. He inherited the state’s highest concentration of low-performing schools and was at the helm during the 2014 pullout of six municipalities that created their own districts, as well as the yearly expansion of the state-run district that has siphoned off its students and funding.
The school board held Tuesday’s hearing in preparation for its May 30 vote on the proposed extension.
Many came out to praise Hopson’s leadership with teacher morale, test scores and community engagement.
“We know we are headed in the right direction,” said Lori Phillips, longtime principal at Belle Forest Community School. “… We have progressed regardless of the rigorous standards.”
Jasmine Pruitt, a parent from Dunbar Elementary, said her opinion of Hopson rose as the superintendent met with school leaders and parents this year about a proposal to close the Orange Mound school. Those conversations led to a reversal that allowed Dunbar to remain open.
“He actually took the time to come and listen to us and he walked the neighborhood,” she said. “You want someone in your corner like that.”
Berclair Elementary Principal Sam Shaw was equally effusive. “He has produced the most powerful academic team I’ve seen in my 13 years in leadership here,” Shaw said. “He has been our model and inspiration.”
Parents who opposed the extension, mostly from the Memphis Lift advocacy organization, told another story.
“We have a low-performing elementary school that feeds into a low-performing middle school,” Elijah Sledge said of his Westwood neighborhood. “I understand we’re growing, but it’s not fast enough. We need more.”
A few others said the district’s oversight of charter schools allowed several low-performing ones to remain open, while a dozen school closures under Hopson’s leadership have forced families to move their students to other schools.
Board member Shante Avant said she proposed the contract extension in an effort to ensure “stable leadership” in the switch to new state academic standards next school year, as well as changes under a new federal education law.
“I want school leaders and teachers and parents to feel assured the direction we’ve taken we will continue to sustain that,” Avant said.