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.

power players

Who’s who in Indiana education: House Speaker Brian Bosma

PHOTO: Sarah Glen

Find more entries on education power players as they publish here.

Vitals: Republican representing District 88, covering parts of Marion, Hancock and Hamilton counties. So far, has served 31 years in the legislature, 9 of those as Speaker of the House. Bosma is a lawyer at the firm Kroger, Gardis & Regas.

Why he’s a power player: Bosma was House Speaker in 2011, when the state passed its large education reform package, creating the first voucher program for students from low-income families. Along with Rep. Bob Behning, Bosma helped develop the state’s voucher program bill as well as the bill that expanded charter school efforts that year. As a party and chamber leader, he plays a major role in setting House Republicans’ legislative agendas.

On toeing the party line: With the debate over state-funded preschool front and center during this year’s session, Bosma has expressed far more enthusiasm than his fellow Republicans for expanding the state’s program. Indeed, Bosma has long been a supporter of state-sponsored preschool. Currently, low-income families in five counties can apply for vouchers to use at high-quality preschool providers. Bosma has said he’d like to see that number triple, if not more.

Recent action: In 2016, Bosma ushered through one of the few teacher-focused bills that became law in the wake of news that some districts in the state were struggling to hire teachers. The bill created a state scholarship fund for prospective teachers, and began awarding money to students this year.

A perhaps little-known fact: In the late 1980s, Bosma worked at the Indiana Department of Education as the legislative adviser to H. Dean Evans, the state superintendent at that time. Then, as with this year’s House Bill 1005, lawmakers advocated to make the state superintendent an appointed position, a bill Bosma is carrying this year.

Who supports him: In past elections, Bosma has received campaign contributions from Education Networks of America, a private education technology company; Hoosiers for Quality Education, an advocacy group that supports school choice, charter schools and vouchers; Stand for Children, a national organization that supports education reform and helps parents to organize; K12, one of the largest online school providers in the country.

Conversely, given his support for choice-based reform, the Indiana Coalition for Public Education gave Bosma an “F” in its 2016 legislative report card highlighting who it thinks has been supportive of public schools.

Legislative highlights via Chalkbeat:

Bills in past years: 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017

Also check out our list of bills to watch this year.

Leaving

Ramirez resigns as academics chief for Shelby County Schools

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Heidi Ramirez visits a class in 2014 at Southwind High School in Memphis soon after she was named the district's chief academic officer. Ramirez announced her resignation from Shelby County Schools on Tuesday.

Heidi Ramirez has resigned as chief of academics for Shelby County Schools, less than 2½  years after coming to Memphis to help turn around the fledgling district following a massive restructuring of the city’s education landscape.

In a letter emailed Tuesday morning to district principals and instructional leaders, Ramirez said she was leaving “to be closer to loved ones and take on new challenges.”

“I am so proud of the great work we have been able to accomplish together,” she wrote. “Together, we have accelerated implementation of both supports for struggling learners and good first teaching — especially in literacy, while also improving the overall climate for learning for both students and staff.”

Shelby County Schools confirmed Tuesday that her resignation is effective March 31, and Ramirez wrote that she would “ensure a successful transition process.”

Her resignation comes a little over a month after a restructuring of district leadership that included the promotion of Innovation Zone leader Sharon Griffin to chief of schools. Ramirez, who was hired as chief academic officer, became chief of academics. Meanwhile, Griffin took on some of the responsibilities previously shouldered by Ramirez and Brad Leon, now chief of strategy and performance management. All three serve on Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s cabinet.

Ramirez came to Memphis from Milwaukee Public Schools. She previously was associate dean for the College of Education and director for Urban Education Collaborative at Temple University, and at one time served on Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission.

When she arrived in Memphis in 2014, she was tasked with helping to increase the number of students reading on grade level, as well as the district’s graduation rate.

Those efforts may be starting to pay off.

She spearheaded a comprehensive literacy plan that pushed to improve reading skills across the curriculum. Last year, the district earned high marks for literacy growth for high school students who took the state’s TNReady test. However, overall growth scores were down, and the district is still far from its Destination 2025 goal of boosting third-grade reading proficiency to 90 percent by 2025.

Graduation rates have seen a slight bump, too. Some 78.7 percent of seniors received their diplomas in 2016, up from 75 percent the previous school year.

“I’m most proud of the work (we) have done to raise and reinforce expectations for our students,” she wrote, “and the continued evidence … that all of our children can achieve to high standards of career and college readiness…”

In her letter, Ramirez trumpets that student attendance is up and suspensions are down. She cites improvements in kindergarten readiness and student access to complex tests, and also notes that the growth in graduation rates extends to the district’s large population of black students, those with disabilities, and English language learners.

In a statement, Hopson praised Ramirez, especially for her work on Destination 2025, the district’s strategic plan.

“(Her) vision has helped enhance planning and coordination across all of our academic departments and stakeholders — from teachers and coaches to school and district leaders,” he said.

Hopson told Chalkbeat that the district will look to tweak the job description in collaboration with Griffin before Ramirez leaves. “With all the work she’s done, I think we’re going to take it to the next level,” he said.

With approximately 105,000 students, Shelby County Schools is Tennessee’s largest school district, the result of a 2013 merger of Memphis City Schools and legacy Shelby County Schools, followed by the exit a year later of six suburban municipalities that started their own school system.

Correction, February 21, 2017: This article has been updated to include the correct percentages of graduation rates for Shelby County Schools. A previous version listed the state percentages instead of the district’s.