Team Dorsey

Inner circle: Here’s who Superintendent Hopson leans on to lead Memphis schools

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson speaks at a back-to-school press conference for Shelby County Schools for the 2017-18 school year.

Dorsey Hopson has been at the helm of Tennessee’s largest district for four years, but his cabinet has been a bit of a revolving door since the historic merger of city and county schools.

Only three members of his 11-person leadership team have been with Hopson since the Memphis attorney was named superintendent of Shelby County Schools in 2013.

As the 2017-18 school year begins, here are the lieutenants that Hopson has recruited to help him lead schools in one of the most challenging education landscapes in America.

Brian Stockton, chief of staff

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Brian Stockton

Salary: $157,500
Duties: Oversees superintendent initiatives, supervises other chiefs and their departments, connects school-level staff to central office decision-making, cultivates relationships with local governing bodies, handles day-to-day emergencies.
His story: The Memphis native returned home last year after 25 years away, including a stint as a leadership analyst for a government contractor in Washington, D.C. There, he was in charge of stemming attrition, boosting morale and developing leaders. Stockton is a 1990 graduate of Central High School. (Read our Q&A with him when he joined Hopson’s team.)

Gerald Darling, chief of student services

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Gerald Darling

Salary: $163,200
Duties: Leads security teams and prevention programs around truancy, gang involvement, violence and out-of-school suspensions, as well as sports, medical and emergency services for schools.
His story: Darling was chief of police for Miami-Dade Schools from 2004 to 2008, when former Memphis City Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash hired him to lead the district’s security division, a new cabinet post at the time.


Sharon Griffin, chief of schools

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Sharon Griffin

Salary: $165,000
Duties: Supervises and supports principals and oversee teacher coaching, leadership development, virtual schools and the Innovation Zone school turnaround program.
Her story: Griffin was promoted to her new job in January after five years as regional superintendent of the iZone, one of the district’s most successful programs. Before that, she led a turnaround effort as principal of Airways Middle School. A Memphis native, Griffin is a graduate of LeMoyne-Owen College and received her doctorate at the University of Memphis. She was named Tennessee’s 2015 supervisor of the year.

Lin Johnson, chief of finance

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Lin Johnson

Salary: $155,000
Duties: Crafts and maintains the district’s budget, monitors spending, looks for new sources of revenue, and allocates money to the district’s nearly 200 schools.
His story: Johnson was hired in 2015 after serving as director of special initiatives for the Tennessee Department of Education and director of finance and operations for the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board.


Brad Leon, chief of strategy and performance management

Brad Leon

Salary: $157,500
Duties: Oversees charter schools, school accountability and testing, planning and research.
His story: Leon started out with Teach For America as a middle school teacher at a New Orleans charter school, where he was voted Teacher of the Year in 2002. He went on to become a regional vice president at Teach For America and the first regional executive director of TFA in Memphis from 2006 to 2010. He joined Hopson’s cabinet in 2013 to lead the district’s innovation department.


Rodney Moore, chief general counsel

Rodney Moore

Salary: $192,270
Duties: Oversees legal matters, including the district’s funding lawsuit against the state.
His story: Moore joined the district in 2016. He previously was a partner in Atlanta with Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, which the district hired in 2015 to explore litigation against the state over funding. He is a former president of the National Bar Association and has served on the National School Board Association’s Council of School Lawyers.

Leon Pattman, chief of internal audit

Leon Pattman

Salary: $143,820
Duties: Evaluates processes, monitors operations, leads risk management strategies.
His story: Pattman came to Shelby County Schools in 2015 from the City of Memphis, where he was the chief audit executive. He has held roles in finance, compliance, auditing and information management with the U.S. Treasury and U.S. Air Force.


Beth Phalen, chief of business operations

Beth Phalen

Salary: $176,000
Duties: Oversees facilities planning and maintenance, nutrition services, district purchases and contracts, transportation and risk management.
Her story: The most recent hire to Hopson’s cabinet, Phalen previously was executive vice president of strategy and operations for ISS Facility Services and vice president of business operations at Memphis-based ServiceMaster.



Natalia Powers, chief of communications & community engagement

Natalia Powers

Salary: $139,230
Duties: Oversees internal and external communications, media relations, digital and print publications, social media, television and radio broadcasting services, and community outreach.
Her story: Powers was hired in 2016 after climbing the ranks in the school district of Palm Beach, Fla., from translator and interpreter, teacher for English language learners, program coordinator, and head of communications and community engagement.


Trinette Small, chief of human resources

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Trinette Small

Salary: $141,500
Duties: Handles recruiting and retaining employees as well as salaries and benefits.
Her story: Small has held this job since the creation of Shelby County Schools following the merger of city and county schools in 2013.



John Williams, chief information officer

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
John Williams

Salary: $158,100
Duties: Provides data systems for administrators and classroom technology for students and teachers.
His story: Williams was hired in 2015 after serving in the same role with Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. He has held technology and telecommunications positions with Atlanta Public Schools and Orange County Schools in Orlando, Fla.



Editor’s note: Salary information is based on a list of full-time positions with Shelby County Schools as of April 2017. District officials did not confirm those numbers after multiple requests.

Super Search

Denver community has lots of advice on picking a new superintendent – who will the board heed?

PHOTO: Denver Post file
DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg guest teaches an Advanced Placement history class at Lincoln High in 2009.

Denver teacher Carla Cariño hopes the district’s next superintendent is a bilingual person of color. Ariel Taylor Smith, a former Denver teacher and now an education advocate, wants a leader who tackles school improvement with a sense of urgency. Collinus Newsome, a leader at the Denver Foundation, hopes the search process includes community voices that have been silenced in the past.

These are just a few of the desires community members have expressed in the wake of Tuesday’s news that Tom Boasberg will step down after nearly a decade as superintendent of Colorado’s largest school district.

While the district has released few details about the process for selecting the next schools chief, board President Anne Rowe said Tuesday it’s the board’s most important role and that it will soon schedule a meeting to discuss the process publicly.

The 92,600-student district won’t be without a superintendent immediately. Boasberg‘s contract requires him to serve for another 90 days.

Randy Black, who coordinates superintendent search services for the Colorado Association of School Boards, said large urban districts like Denver typically launch comprehensive national searches to fill superintendent vacancies. On average, such searches take two to three months, but the length can vary based on district circumstances, he said.

“DPS is royally set up to do this,” Black said, using the district’s acronym. “They’ve done great strategic work in an extremely complex environment.”

The suburban Douglas County district, the state’s third largest, picked a new superintendent in April after a national search that drew more than 1,000 inquiries and culminated with three finalists. Thomas Tucker, previously superintendent of Princeton City Schools in Cincinnati, Ohio, is the new schools chief there.

While national searches are the norm for large districts, that’s not what happened when Boasberg was unanimously selected by the board in January 2009, a few weeks after his predecessor Michael Bennet was appointed to a vacant U.S. Senate seat. Boasberg was the district’s chief operating officer at the time and the sole finalist for the position.

Susana Cordova, currently the district’s deputy superintendent, is one likely internal candidate this time around. A graduate of Denver’s Abraham Lincoln High School and a longtime district administrator, she served as acting superintendent in 2016 when Boasberg took a six-month sabbatical to live abroad.

“Most urban and suburban boards will wrestle with how do you honor internals at the same time you open the door to potential matchups outside the district,” Black said. “That’s a fairly common dilemma.”

With news of Boasberg’s departure, one of the biggest questions on the minds of Denver parents and educators is how the public can weigh in on the superintendent selection.

Cariño, a teacher at North High School, responded to Chalkbeat’s online survey, wondering how the district plans to involve teachers and community members in the process.

She also wrote, “While being the superintendent of a large urban district is no easy task, the gains made under Boasberg for students of color were minimal. The fact of the matter is there is still a significant amount of work to be done so our students of color can better access and complete [a] four-year college … Our new superintendent should be a bilingual person of color who understands our communities and can make the needle move out of a genuine need to see progress for our students versus a political career.”

Ricardo Martinez, president of the parent advocacy group Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, said Wednesday he would like to see an open process where students, parents, and the community have some opportunity to ask questions and provide feedback.

He said parents he works with didn’t feel left out when Boasberg was selected because they understood the district had a short timeframe to find a replacement, and they had already worked with Boasberg and knew he supported the work they were doing together.

Now, Martinez said, parents are looking for a leader who understands and listens to the community, and who can take stock of what’s working and what’s not and use that information to find solutions.

“But making sure everyone is aware of that logic — That’s been extremely lacking with the administration. It’s about letting the community know so it’s not just an internal debrief,” he said.

local leadership national impact

Denver’s longtime superintendent turned the city into a national school reform favorite

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
DPS superintendent Tom Boasberg sits in a board meeting with board members in 2017.

Over Tom Boasberg’s nearly 10 years as Denver superintendent, he made a national impact.

He pioneered a model of school reform that involved close collaboration — rather than hostility or solely competition — with charter schools, helping inspire a national push to bring similar policies to cities across the country.

By marshaling unusual levels of political support, donations from both local and national philanthropies, and a lengthy tenure, Boasberg was able to execute on that vision, even if the effectiveness of his approach remains the subject of fierce debate.

“What Denver realized is you could fight charter school growth or you could work with the charters to achieve your goals,” said Robin Lake of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which studies and has supported the portfolio model, which Denver has embraced. “They’ve been at the forefront of a lot of really important developments in the field.”

Today, over half of Denver’s public schools are either charters or “innovation schools,” which are district-run schools given charter-like flexibility. The city has a common enrollment system for district and charter schools. Boasberg also led the charge to close schools deemed low-performing, even over the opposition of many in the community.

But while he championed the bread-and-butter education reform playbook of charters and test-based accountability, he pushed for school funding, more integrated schools, restorative justice, and the rights of immigrant children. He also described his approach to school choice as driven by concerns about equity, and pushed charters to accept more students with disabilities and for in-demand schools to take in more students mid-year.

During his tenure, Denver became a magnet for money from national philanthropies that support charter schools, while also attracting the attention of other school districts looking for models. Delegations from cities including Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. have trekked to Denver to examine its approach, while the head of Kansas City schools and Boston media have highlighted Denver’s tactics, too.

What enabled Boasberg’s lengthy tenure was the backing of the city’s school board. The degree of support ranged from 4-3 to 7-0, but his allies never lost their grip on the board for his nearly decade-long tenure — a sign, backers say, of his deep well of support in the city.

Many of those members’ campaigns were supported by pro-charter donors. In last year’s contentious board races, Democrats for Education Reform and Stand for Children spent hundreds of thousands of dollars combined to back pro-Boasberg candidates. Those dollars outstripped substantial spending by local teachers unions, which often butted heads with Boasberg.

Local and national philanthropies interested in education reform also saw Denver as a testing ground for key initiatives.

In 2009, the district netted well over $4 million from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation to fund its school accountability framework and teacher performance pay system; in 2012, it took in another $4 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to support collaboration between charter and district schools. According to documents obtained through a public records request, the district recently received $375,000 from Dell and $335,000 from the Walton Family Foundation to support its enrollment system, touted by some as a national model.

The district’s approach has also drawn substantial support from local funders, including the Donnell-Kay Foundation and Gates Family Foundation.

(Chalkbeat is also funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates, Donnell-Kay, Gates Family, and Walton foundations.)

Advocates of the portfolio model — which posits that schools of all types will do best when they are given autonomy, are held accountable for results, are chosen by families, and have their overarching functions like enrollment overseen by a central body — have highlighted Denver as a model. (Although Denver has a “portfolio management” team, Boasberg, like many other district leaders, avoids this term, referring instead to the district’s “family of schools.”)

“Denver still has a long way to go but its progress offers hope to other urban districts with elected school boards,” wrote David Osborne in a book promoting the portfolio approach, which uses Denver as a case study. “A combination of courageous leadership, political skills, and positive results has yielded broad support for its strategy.”

Boasberg continued and expanded on policies begun by his predecessor Michael Bennet, now a U.S. Senator, creating unusual continuity of leadership. But there were still fierce local fights about the direction of the district.

Boasberg faced pushback locally both from those who wanted to slow down the expansion of charter schools and those who wanted to speed it up. Two critics of the district’s direction won seats on the school board in the most recent election.

“You have a number of people he works with that are reformers. They think he’s leaving an awesome legacy,” said Brandon Pryor, a local critic and member of Our Voice, Our Schools. “But if you come to my community and ask some black folks what Tom Boasberg’s legacy will be, they’ll tell you something totally different.”

Earlier this year, former Denver student Vanessa Quintana spearheaded an initiative at the state’s Democratic convention to condemn the group Democrats for Education Reform. She was driven by Bennet’s closure of her high school in 2006.

“When Manual [High School] shut down my freshman year, it told me education reformers didn’t find me worthy of a school,” she said. The school eventually restarted, but continued to struggle under Boasberg.

In 2015, the district adopted a new policy meant to demystify its school closure rules, then closed an elementary school for poor performance. The rollout was widely seen as rocky, and the district halted its closure policy this year.

Boasberg has faced pushback from local school choice advocates, too, including those who felt he wasn’t tough enough on low-performing schools or aggressive enough in expanding charters.

Meanwhile, last year, U.S. Secretary of Education and charter advocate Betsy DeVos criticized Denver’s approach to school choice as not expansive enough — something that charter advocates in the heavily blue city privately celebrated.

The effectiveness of Denver’s approach remains an open question. Test scores and graduation rates have improved, and students’ academic growth has outstripped that of many other cities. Still, yawning disparities between the district’s low-income and higher-income students remain.

Research on those questions is surprisingly limited for a city whose approach is so widely touted. Studies have shown that Denver’s charter schools generally outperform the district on standardized tests, but there is little if any research on how the city’s reforms have affected school performance across the board.

Lake, of CRPE, says that while other cities can take lessons from Denver, she warns leaders not to believe they can easily transport the policies of one city into another.

Every local context deserves its own approach,” she said. “I don’t think there should be any cookie cutters.”