Shelby County Schools

Shelby County Schools board to consider extending Hopson’s contract

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has overseen Shelby County Schools since the 2013 merger of Memphis City Schools and the legacy Shelby County district.

He has guided Shelby County School system through a historic year: The merger of legacy Memphis City Schools and suburban Shelby County Schools; a subsequent series of settlements that allowed the creation of six new school systems in the suburbs; a series of dramatic budget cuts and school closings reflecting shrinking enrollment; the continued expansion of the charter school sector and a state-run district. He has set out bold goals to improve graduation rates and academic quality.

But with all that experience, Shelby County schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson II still lacks one thing: A degree in education. Does that matter?

The Shelby County Schools board will consider extending Hopson’s contract Monday, June 23, after hearing public comments.

Experts say that superintendents of large urban school systems need a variety of skills, and that the board’s confidence in a leader is the most important predictor of a district operating smoothly. But community members and local commenters have raised concerns about a school system where the cabinet that is currently devoid of traditional educators, especially in a city that is the center of a number of education reform efforts and home to most of the state’s lowest-ranked schools.

“I can read as many legal briefs as I want to read, but I would not be qualified to be president of the bar association,” said Valerie Griffin, a Memphis resident, at a community meeting in May. “We were told Mr. Hopson was a place marker until they could find someone who was qualified and had worked to redeem inner-city schools.”

Keith Williams, the president of the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association, said he was concerned that the superintendent and his cabinet did not have a grasp of “the process of teaching and learning.” He said that while Shelby County Schools has been dealing with a series of major legal issues, academics should be the focus again.

“I think it speaks to the board not understanding our real purpose. If they think the purpose is to run a business, that’s not the way we perceive the school system,” Williams said. “Our purpose is impacting students and transmitting culture.”

The Commercial Appeal‘s editorial board also voiced concern about the dearth of leaders with education degrees in Hopson’s cabinet earlier this spring.

Roderick Richmond, the district’s most recent chief academic officer, is leaving the position in June. That leaves Shelby County Schools’ top cabinet with just one member with experience teaching. Board member Teresa Jones, who is leading a committee to evaluate the superintendent, said the district should prioritize finding a new CAO.

Hopson, a Memphis native, had been the legal counsel for Memphis City Schools since 2008. He took the reins of the district as interim superintendent in early 2013, after Kriner Cash resigned and in the midst of the school merger. The merged Shelby County Schools board hired him as permanent superintendent in September. His contract is currently to serve until 2016. He currently makes $269,000 a year.

Hopson is technically qualified to be superintendent: In Tennessee, according to state law, though teachers and principals must have specific certifications, the only requirement for a superintendent selected by an elected board of education is a bachelors’ degree.

Having a non-educator superintendent is uncommon, said Dan Domenech, the head of the national School Superintendents’ Association. While there was a spate of non-educators hired to lead big-city districts in the 1990s and early 2000s years—including now-education secretary Arne Duncan, who ran the Chicago district, and former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein—now, the vast majority of superintendents are educators.

In Tennessee, fewer than five percent of superintendents come from a non-education background, said Wayne Miller, the director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

Former Memphis superintendents Kriner Cash and Carol Johnson were both traditional educators. And M-SCEA’s Williams noted that all of the new municipal school districts forming in the suburbs have hired educators to lead their school districts.

But, Domenech said, the most important thing is that board have confidence in Hopson.

Running large urban school systems is a multifaceted job, Miller said. “Public education, particularly in large urban systems, has a lot of intricacies to managing it,” he said. “I was a superintendent, and some days I wished I were an accountant, or a lawyer.”

“The best person to make academic decisions is an educator,” Miller said. “But in a district as large as Shelby County, there are many people with academic expertise.”

Board member Jones said that while she disagrees with Hopson at times, she supports him as superintendent. “For me I see the role of superintendent evolving. There’s great value in having someone with legal expertise. There’s also value in having CAO who has a strong education background,” she said. “We need to find that CAO.”

“For me, it’s difficult to find one person who has both. Even with career educator, you’d need that other component,” Jones said.

And, she said, as the district prepares for a school year in which six new school districts are getting off the ground, “Stability is important.”

At the community meeting aimed at getting comments on Hopson’s performance, most of the dozen speakers were positive. Several commented that the process of the merger and demerger had gone more smoothly than it might have. Veronica Collins, a former member of the Memphis City Schools’ parent assembly, told the board, “Don’t you feel more motivated this year? … Sometimes you have to look outside of the box to bring leadership and rapport to this community.”

The board’s meeting begins on June 23 at 4 p.m. and will be held at the district’s headquarters at 160 S. Hollywood in Memphis.



call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”