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?

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.

meet and greet

Tennessee seeks reset in Memphis with next leader of its school turnaround district

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Stephen Osborn (right), a finalist for superintendent of Tennessee's Achievement Schools District, speaks with Mendell Grinter, leader of the Campaign for School Equity, during a meeting at Martin Luther King College Preparatory School in Memphis.

Pastor Ricky Floyd says he was an “early cheerleader” when the state began taking over low-performing schools in Memphis in 2012 and assigning them to charter operators to improve.

But no more.

Disappointed with those schools’ academic progress and even more disappointed with how Tennessee’s Achievement School District engages with Memphians, he now feels “hoodwinked” by the state.

“What is your plan to cultivate relationships with the community again?” Floyd asked Stephen Osborn, a finalist to become the next superintendent of the state-run district.

Osborn, who is chief of innovation for Rhode Island’s Department of Education, met with Floyd and other community members Wednesday as Tennessee seeks to whittle down its list of four superintendent candidates revealed last week.

Their brief exchange — in which Osborn pledged to earn community trust by creating better schools — captures the challenge that the district’s next leader will face.

Local trust in the Achievement School District is low, taxed by years of painful state takeovers of neighborhood schools with promises of fast turnarounds but lackluster results. In recent years, several national charter networks have left the district, mostly because of low enrollment but also due to the high cost of turnaround work. And several schools have closed or changed hands.

“I’m sorry that’s been your experience,” Osborn ultimately told Floyd, pastor of the Pursuit of God congregation in the city’s Frayser neighborhood. “I don’t expect to get folks’ faith on day one. I’m going to need to earn it.”

All four candidates have met with Memphis leaders, but Osborn was the first to be brought back for a second round, said Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, who will make the hire along with Gov. Bill Haslam.

McQueen called the leadership change “a restart moment” and said community input is part of the transition. She emphasized that the superintendent search is still in progress.

“We certainly have an expectation that we’ll bring in others,” she told reporters. “At this point, we wanted to move one forward while we’re continuing to solicit additional information from the search firm on current candidates as well as other candidates who have presented themselves over last couple of weeks.”

The other top candidates include Keith Sanders, a Memphis-based education consultant and former Memphis school principal who most recently was chief officer of school turnaround at the Delaware Department of Education; Brett Barley, deputy superintendent for student achievement with the Nevada Department of Education, and Adam Miller, executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice at the Florida Department of Education.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen joins Osborn during meetings with community stakeholders.

McQueen accompanied Osborn Wednesday as he met with Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin, along with funders, parents and community leaders. A day earlier, he was in Nashville speaking with the governor’s staff and members of the State Board of Education, as well as staff with LEAD Public Schools, which operates two ASD schools in the state’s capital city.

The new superintendent will succeed Malika Anderson, who stepped down last fall after almost two years at the helm. Kathleen Airhart, a longtime deputy at the State Department of Education, has served as interim leader.

The job will require overseeing 30 low-performing schools — the majority of which are run by charter organizations in Memphis — at a time when the Achievement School District has much less authority than when it launched during the Race to the Top era.

Osborn said he has been watching the ASD’s work from afar and said he is ready to get into the mix.

“This role is one where there’s no bigger impact make in terms of making better outcomes for families and this children,” he told reporters. “Tennessee has a bright, strong and vibrant future.”

Superintendent search

Rhode Island school improvement leader among finalists to head Tennessee’s turnaround district

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Memphis is the home of most of the Achievement School District's turnaround work.

A Rhode Island education leader who is a finalist to lead Tennessee’s school turnaround district was in Memphis Wednesday to meet with community members.

Stephen Osborn is the chief for innovation and accelerating school performance at the Rhode Island Department of Education. He is among finalists to lead Tennessee’s Achievement School District.

A second finalist has not been chosen from among the four candidates revealed last week, according to Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Education.

She denied a report earlier Wednesday from Bobby White, chief of external affairs for the Achievement School District, that Osborn and Memphis education consultant Keith Sanders were the two finalists.

“I truly think we’re still having conversations about the other candidates,” Gast said.

White later walked back his comments. “She’s right. I was making an assumption. I apologize,” he told Chalkbeat in an email.

Before joining Rhode Island education leadership, Osborn was an assistant superintendent with the Louisiana Department of Education and a chief operating officer with New Beginnings Charter School Network in New Orleans.

He was visiting with Memphis community groups Wednesday with Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, including a meet-and-greet in the city’s Frayser neighborhood, which is a hub of state-run district’s work. 

Earlier this month, Gast said the state would narrow down the candidates list from four to two based on input from key district and community members in Memphis. “The final decision on who to hire will be jointly determined by the commissioner and the governor,” she told Chalkbeat.

Sanders is the CEO of his own consulting group in Memphis and is the former chief officer of school turnaround at the Delaware Department of Education. He was a principal at Riverview Middle School in Memphis before leaving in 2007 to co-found the Miller-McCoy Academy in New Orleans, an all-boys charter school that shuttered in 2014.

The two other candidates are Brett Barley, deputy superintendent for student achievement with the Nevada Department of Education, and Adam Miller, executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice at the Florida Department of Education.

All four have visited Memphis and met with key leaders, according to Gast.

The new superintendent will succeed Malika Anderson, who stepped down last fall after almost two years at the helm. 

The job will require overseeing 30 low-performing schools — the majority of which are run by charter organizations in Memphis — at a time when the Achievement School District has much less authority than when it launched in 2012 during the Race to the Top era.