5 Questions

Meet Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s new right-hand man in Memphis

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Brian Stockton, chief of staff for Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson

Brian Stockton views coming home after 25 years as a chance to make a difference in his hometown of Memphis.

A 1990 graduate of Central High School, Stockton became chief of staff for Superintendent Dorsey Hopson in July after serving as a consultant to Shelby County Schools since February.

Among his projects so far: organizing a supplies depot for teachers at high-need schools, connecting Whitehaven-area schools in a new Empowerment Zone, and using money saved from reorganized bus routes to start addressing a backlog of building maintenance needs.

Almost every Wednesday, Stockton shares breakfast with members of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners to cultivate the district’s relationship with its local funding body. He also recruited former Tennessee Teacher of the Year Karen Vogelsang as a staff member to inject a teacher’s voice in district policy decisions.

Stockton, 44, recently sat down with Chalkbeat to talk about his role. Here are the highlights.

What does a chief of staff do, and how does that fit into the mission of Shelby County Schools?

I’m more staff than chief. I feel like I’m a regular worker in the district. On paper, I supervise other chiefs and their departments. But I see my role as working on the day-to-day issues, kind of reactionary. My primary role is to provide cushion for the superintendent to think, provide vision, and plan the next moves for the district. For any good leader, they can’t lead an organization when they’re solving the day-to-day issues. I see my role as being a buffer so he can provide that leadership.

What was your most recent job? And what prompted you to begin working in the public education sector?

I was a leadership analyst at Serco, a large company near (Washington) D.C. that mostly does government contracts. The CEO wanted someone to stem attrition and boost morale while developing leaders within the organization. When I first got hired, I was sent to Kansas City to fight off a union. I just leaned in and started listening for three days. The CEO did a followup visit a few weeks later and was surprised at how things had changed for the better. Within a year, we were able to stem attrition by 12 percent, which is huge.

What got me in education was really the culture piece. This time last year, I had a conversation with Superintendent Hopson about low morale in the district. He said “I need help. We need your kind of skills here.” I came home twice a year and saw the suffering and poverty here in Memphis. … I wanted to see if (my cultural and leadership skills) could work here to raise morale of some our most important professionals: our educators.

What are your main principles when tackling this kind of work?

Whenever my team members are in a situation where they don’t know what to do, they can go back to our core principles to inform their decisions. Some of our principles are to train minds and inspire hearts and to make bad students good and good students superior.

I want us to have a new branding as a district where people want to send their kids. I want each staff member to feel like they have a purpose. Morale starts at the top. We as a leadership team cannot send out ambiguous directives. When we do that, people are confused. And when people are confused, they don’t have clear direction and they are frustrated. And if I’m able to provide that kind of cushion for the superintendent, he can provide that clear vision.

A lot has happened since you graduated in 1990 — the merger, the de-merger, Race to the Top, the Innovation Zone, the Achievement School District, to name a few things. What are the changes that strike you the most now that you’ve returned to Memphis schools?

brian-stockton
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

I haven’t seen much of a difference in Memphis (in general). And that’s one of the reasons I wanted to come. I want to make a difference. Sometimes when I got off the jetway in D.C. after visiting Memphis, I felt like I was going 20 years into the future.

But in education, I’ve seen a lot of differences. (State testing) seems to be one of the main reasons for low morale among teachers and principals in the district. We’ve got to have a metric in place to notice disparities so we can change our tactics. But there’s got to be a balance.

And the involvement of philanthropic organizations. I didn’t know about outside organizations providing funding for education. Maybe it was going on when I was here, but I didn’t know about it.

What are some of the greatest equity issues facing students in Shelby County Schools?

Poverty, single-parent homes, unemployment that our parents are facing, which takes you back to poverty. … As a district, we have to find a way to be on one agenda, and that agenda has to be the children and changing the trajectory of Memphis out of poverty and making it a place of highly educated individuals. I was at Hamilton High School recently and there were children coming in who hadn’t been registered yet for the school year. And their parents looked like they just came from a really hard place.

At the end of the day, I look at the (central office) as the Pentagon, and I look at our schools as military installations. Our job is to provide those military installations with all the resources they need to help these children. I want to do everything in my power to make sure there’s equity in our schools and that they get the resources they need. I don’t care if it’s a Smart Board or a book or a security officer or a social worker.

Young Voice

A Detroit high schooler is among 13 young adults steering two national student protests against gun violence

Detroiter Alondra Alvarez is standing up for gun control

Among the 13 teens and young adults spearheading two nationwide student protests against gun violence is a Detroit high schooler who says guns have created fear in her neighborhood.

Alondra Alvarez, a senior at Detroit’s Western International High School, is on the steering committee for two student walkouts being planned in response to last week’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The March 14 Women’s March Youth EMPOWER Walkout will last 17 minutes to symbolize the 17 lives cut short in that shooting, while a full-day walkout on April 20 will commemorate the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting.

Alvarez, who says she once considered herself a “shy Latina girl,” has become a fierce warrior for young people in Detroit and beyond. She spoke at the Women’s Convention in Detroit last October and has since stayed involved in the youth initiative of the Women’s March, launched last year to resist the Trump administration.

Chalkbeat talked to Alvarez about how gun violence affects her and her city, what sets her apart from the other organizers, and the message she wants to relay.

What’s it like to be selected to be a youth leader representing Detroit for the walkout?

I feel really honored. Of the Women’s March Youth, I’m the only Latina and the only person representing Detroit. A lot of times youth in Detroit are not really represented. I feel if I represent my community, then that will help other people want to get involved. I’m a person of color, and we share similar experiences. We know how gun violence influences our community, and we know it affects us. Since I’m involved, that will make other people who look like me want to get involved.

How do you believe gun violence affects Detroit?

It makes it really unsafe. I know every night, gunshots are fired around my neighborhood. It made me fear my neighborhood growing up, and I wouldn’t go out late at night. It shouldn’t be like that. We should be able to walk around our neighborhood at night or anytime and not have that fear.

The walkout will be held one month after the Parkland school shooting, a place where many people assumed such an incident could never happen. How do you feel Detroit is different than a city like Parkland?

Detroit is different because most of us are aware random shootings can happen. We are aware of our surroundings, so we check all students to make sure something like that doesn’t go down. At school, we all get checked because there are metal detectors. So there are less chances of something like that happening. I don’t want to say something like that couldn’t happen, but metal detectors lower the chances of somebody shooting up the school. It makes us feel safer.  

How does it make you feel to be a youth leader and a voice against gun violence?

It actually makes me feel really good. I don’t do it for myself. I do it for the youth in my community. It’s a really good feeling. I do it for the youth in my community because there’s a lack of resources that I’ve seen. The system is not meant for people of color, and it’s made me go out of my way to be a role model for people, to be involved with higher education and seek change. I want to help youth know that even though the system is not for you, you can overcome that and be whatever you want to be in life.

What message do you plan to relay during the walkout?

I came up with a quote this week, and it’s called “Another Bullet, Another Life.” We can’t control bullets, but we can fight for gun control because the gun violence is getting out of hand. All these school shootings are happening, and with gun control we can avoid some of these issues.

How did the news of the Parkland, Florida, shooting personally affect you?

It was really devastating. It was Valentine’s Day, the day people like to show affection. I can’t imagine losing a brother, sister or son or someone close to me on that day… Knowing it was the 18th school shooting this year — that’s just crazy, and we’re not doing anything to control it. It really breaks my heart.

Movers & shakers

Former education leaders spearhead new Memphis group to zero in on poverty

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Klondike-Smokey City is the first Memphis neighborhood targeted by Whole Child Strategies to coordinate the fight against poverty.

In a “big small town” like Memphis, neighborhoods are a source of pride and strength for residents in one of the poorest cities in America.

Natalie McKinney

Now, a new Memphis nonprofit organization is seeking to address poverty by coordinating the work of neighborhood schools, businesses, churches, and community groups.

Natalie McKinney is executive director of Whole Child Strategies, created last fall to help neighborhood and community leaders chart their own paths for decreasing poverty, which also would increase student achievement.

“There’s a lot of people ‘collaborating’ but not a lot of coordination toward a shared goal,” said McKinney, a former policy director for Shelby County Schools.

McKinney doesn’t want to “reinvent the wheel” on community development. However, she does want to provide logistical resources for analyzing data, facilitating meetings, and coordinating public advocacy for impoverished Memphis neighborhoods through existing or emerging neighborhood councils.

“Poverty looks different in different areas,” she said, citing varying levels of parent education, transportation, jobs and wages, and access to mental health services. “When we get down and figure out what is really going on and really dealing with the root cause for that particular community, that’s the work that the neighborhood council is doing.”

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Luther Mercer

Her team includes Luther Mercer, former Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center, and Rychetta Watkins, who recently led the Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Mid-South, along with Courtney Thomas, Elizabeth Mitchell, and Tenice Hardaway.

Whole Child Strategies is supported by an anonymous donor and also plans to raise more funds, according to McKinney.

The first neighborhood to receive a grant from the nonprofit is Klondike-Smokey City, which includes a mix of schools run by both Shelby County Schools and Tennessee’s Achievement School District. The group is drilling down to find out why students in those schools are missing school days, which will include a look at student suspensions.

At the community level, Whole Child Strategies has canvassed Agape Child & Family Services, Communities in Schools, City Year, Family Safety Center, Klondike Smokey City Community Development Corp., Mid-South Peace & Justice Center, and Seeding Success for ideas to increase transportation, reduce crime, and provide more mental health services.

For example, Family Safety Center, which serves domestic abuse survivors, now has a presence in schools in the Klondike-Smokey City community. McKinney said that’s the kind of coordination she hopes Whole Child Strategies can foster.

One need that already is apparent is for a community-wide calendar so that meetings do not overlap and organizations can strategize together, said Quincey Morris, executive director of the Klondike Smokey City Community Development Corp.

“I think like any new thing, you have to crawl first,” Morris said. “And I think the more that the community is informed about the whole child strategy, the more that we involve parents and community residents, I think it will grow.”