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.

big gig

Former Denver schools administrator tapped to be D.C. schools chancellor

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Antwan Wilson when he was principal of Denver's Montbello High School.

Former Denver principal and assistant superintendent Antwan Wilson has been nominated to lead the high-profile Washington, D.C. school district.

“This is a tremendous opportunity,” Wilson told the Washington Post. “It is the premier job leading a district in the entire country.”

Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, who nominated Wilson, praised him in a statement, referencing the fact that Wilson, 44, grew up in poverty.

“In his 20 plus years in education, Antwan Wilson has been a teacher, a principal, an assistant superintendent and a superintendent, and at every level, he has been successful,” she said. “Not only is he an experienced leader, Mr. Wilson is role model for our students. His success proves that with hard work, they can achieve what they set out to do.”

For the past two and a half years, Wilson has been superintendent of the Oakland, Calif. school district. Prior to that, he served for five years as assistant superintendent in Denver Public Schools, supervising DPS’ middle, high and alternative schools. He was previously an instructional superintendent in Denver and principal of the now-closed Montbello High School.

While in a leadership role in Denver, Wilson oversaw the turnaround of struggling Montbello High, which was shuttered and replaced with three smaller schools. He also helped with several other secondary-school initiatives.

“If you said five years ago ‘here’s what I’m going to do in Denver: cut the dropout rate in half, increase on time graduation rate by 20 points, and cut suspensions and expulsions by more than half,’ a lot of people would have said ‘be serious.’ He led those initiatives and he did it,” DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg told the East Bay Times in 2014.

Mike Vaughn, who was chief communications officer for DPS during part of Wilson’s tenure, remembers him as a champion for all students, regardless of their background.

“Everything he did was focused on getting every kid a chance to get through high school and do well,” Vaughn said Tuesday. A lot of people talk about educational equity, Vaughn said, but “Antwan talks about it, lives it, breathes it and acts on it. He’s an inspiring person.”

The D.C. Council will have to approve Wilson’s nomination, according to the mayor’s statement. Wilson is expected to start Feb. 1 with a salary of $280,000.

Wilson will face several challenges as head of D.C. schools, the Washington Post reported, including increasing test scores and graduation rates for black male students, narrowing achievement gaps between the gentrifying city’s poor and affluent children, and negotiating a new contract with the teachers union.

Movers and shakers

Colorado League of Charter Schools president Nora Flood leaving to lead new Walton Family Foundation program

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Nora Flood addresses an audience at a school board forum in Jefferson County.

The leader of the Colorado League of Charter Schools is leaving next year to help start a new program of the Walton Family Foundation, the league announced Friday.

Nora Flood has worked for the league for more than eight years and became president in 2013.

“I leave the organization humbled, honored, and excited to start a new chapter in my life,” Flood wrote in a letter to the organization’s schools and supporters. “I hope that you continue to support our team and the League’s ever-so-important work. And I look forward to seeing you all as we cross paths going forward.”

Flood said she felt comfortable leaving because of the strength of the association, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2018.

“I believe that the League is in great hands with its talented staff and dedicated board,” she wrote. “The organization is incredibly healthy and sustainable.”

The league exists to support charter schools during their start-up phase, train school leaders and staff, and advocate for charters at the legislature. Charter schools are publicly funded but run independently.

Flood will become education director for the James Walton Fund, a program of the Walton Family Foundation. The foundation is among the largest proponents and fiscal supporters of charter schools in the nation. (The Walton Family Foundation is also a financial supporter of Chalkbeat).

In her new role, Flood will be responsible for identifying and growing successful nontraditional education models in the charter sector, especially the Montessori model, that encourages students to direct their learning.

Flood previously ran Montessori schools before joining the league. James Walton, an engineer who lives in the Denver area, has spent time volunteering at Montessori charters, and he previously started a Montessori teacher-training center.

The league’s board will begin a search for a new president after the Thanksgiving holiday.