Attorney Dorsey Hopson took over Tennessee’s largest school district when it was in turmoil — what he described as “a mess.”
Not many would argue with his perspective. Shelby County Schools was in the midst of the nation’s largest merger of city and suburban school districts when Hopson started full-time work as superintendent in 2013. Students were leaving the district. The divide between affluent families and poor ones was growing.
But by the end of his tenure, the state department of education held up Memphis as a model of school turnaround efforts, particularly the district’s Innovation Zone. Test scores in every subject are up, even though Hopson knows they still have a long way to go.
“But now, and I think with the right attention, and the right special attention, you can see student achievement accelerate at a much more rapid pace,” he told Chalkbeat.
Now, almost six years later, Hopson is headed to a new challenge at health care giant Cigna. We sat down with him during his final days in the district’s top job to discuss his work and hope for the future.
(This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.)
You often talk about the poverty experienced by students and families in Shelby County. Do you think the rest of the state gets this?
No, because I think it’s one thing to hear about poverty. It’s another thing to see it. I think about when I got back to Memphis, we had a case and we had to go up to North Memphis. Kimberly (executive assistant) had given me, back then, a MapQuest to a house and I pull up. And I pull up and I’m thinking, like the house is boarded up and the stairs are falling down, maybe it’s the wrong house. I’m getting ready to call Kim and they say come on in. So, I go inside and it was literally like seven or eight mattresses on the floor, a bunch of fans going. You could see roaches walking around and all over the place. This is where our kids live! This is just me the lawyer who had been back four or five months. So, that just hit me like a ton of bricks.
As you go forward, when I took this role and was looking at some of the data that 40,000 kids live in households with less than $10,000, it dawned on me that’s what that looks like. I think when people think about poverty — there’s poverty, and then there’s Memphis poverty. We are one of the poorest districts and communities in the country. That is suffocating poverty.
If you’re a legislator in East Tennessee and you see a stat around poverty, it’s easy to start talking about bootstraps and all these different kind of things when your vision or thinking around poverty is not seven mattresses on the floor and a bunch of fans. I don’t think it resonates. The reality of it doesn’t smack people in the face like it should or like it does if you’re here. It presents very big challenges for everybody if you have that many kids. It’s not insurmountable, but it’s tough.
How did you take a district operating in the red to investing millions in the classroom?
A lot of stuff. An example is obviously school closures. I think also most importantly is really pushing people around their budgets. People say I’ve got all these different heads and they say here’s my budget and here’s what I can cut. When Lin [Johnson, chief of finance] got here, we would sit down for hours, upon hours, upon hours with people going through all their budgets. It’s a lot when [a district chief] has a $200 million budget. We said we’re going to spend the next three days in my conference room — me and Lin and this person — and you got to explain to me why this is. A lot of the chiefs didn’t really understand what was in their budget. So, when you really go line by line and challenge and push, and prod, and then encourage people, and suggest to people alternative ways to do things, that makes a difference.
I think about our transportation for example. We had these routes that we had been running forever. We cut $9 million out of transportation and it wasn’t a lot of pushback and there wasn’t a lot of issues with it either.
My leadership style was such that you got to inspect what you expect. I think the legal training helped me to be very inquisitive in areas even if I didn’t really know and some people may just take for granted. And not to say people were giving you fluff or not being honest. I just think people have to be pushed to think different.
I think about when we were first starting this, we were just cutting because of the merger. If we had time to be more thoughtful like we learned to do over time, we probably could have caused a whole lot less pain.
We’ve got to talk about grade tampering. When that emerged in 2016, in the end only two people were fired and the investigation was closed because of lack of documentation. Are you satisfied with its outcome, and why should stakeholders have confidence in the integrity of the district’s grading practices now?
I can talk about what we’ve done afterward. I think that it depends on what you mean with ‘satisfied with the outcome.’ I’m still disappointed and mad that any educators would engage in stuff like that because ultimately, it cheats kids. For many of our parents and our families, the school district is that institution that represents hope. And so when you have anybody who undermines that, particularly for selfish and stupid reasons, illegal reasons and unethical reasons, I’m still deeply offended and upset that happened.
But also having said that, when you find out something happens, all you can really do is try to figure out what happened and then, most importantly, I think in these situations put processes in place to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. Or if it does happen, you can quickly detect it. And then finally, when you find out there were wrongdoers, I think you have to take appropriate action.
The people from the auditing firm said we can keep digging and we can take your money, but it’s not likely that we’re going to find anything. So, our recommendation is to lay out these recommendations that we’ve given you to make sure this stuff doesn’t happen anymore. And we followed all those recommendations.
So, why did you not want Shelby County Schools staff to continue digging deeper on that if you didn’t want to pay the outside firm to do it?
It’s the same processes. The issue was: changing a grade isn’t, on its face, anything wrong with that. It’s just that is it a legitimate reason for a grade change? And the best way to determine whether there was a legitimate reason was the documentation. So, if you go back five years for these schools and you can’t validate the documentation, then you’re not going to ever know.
If they couldn’t do it and they’re the experts, I wouldn’t expect our people to know how to do it.
Plus, one of the things that I was comfortable with was the objectivity that happened with the whole grading thing. We didn’t do it. We had outside people do it. We had a former U.S. attorney do it. We had a forensic accounting firm do it. So, I think that if we start taking those files and taking it to our people, I don’t think that we’d be objective if we did that.
Your facilities plan presented last month was a pretty big mic drop moment. Why now?
I wanted to make sure that it was something that I could at least produce before I left because I had been working on it with the team for so long. I didn’t think it was fair to ask (interim superintendent) Dr. Ray or anybody else to lead that.
At the end of the day, whatever the combination of schools are, whatever the right places to build are, you got to do something. You cannot continue to carry on these underutilized facilities that are in bad shape. Not if you expect to be able to continue the momentum.
But that’s going to require resources. You can do that when you have a plan that would help you have more money for your operating budget, reduce your deferred maintenance and then put kids in new schools. So, that seemed to me, it will go a long way, probably at least for the next 15 or 20 years in terms of stability or sustainability.
Over your time as superintendent, you closed nearly 20 schools. Do you think it’s led to better academic outcomes for kids?
I think in some instances. You get better over time, right? I think that certainly we think about Westhaven. That was the model that we’re trying to go for now. At first, keep in mind, there was the transition planning commission [during the historic merger of city and county school systems] that says you need to close 50 schools. And they made the case to close the schools to save money to close the budget gap. So, I think that initially Dorsey Hopson, a lawyer-turned-superintendent had been doing this for three or four months and has this plan that says let’s go close schools. And then you get so much backlash because it’s so much more than about the money — it’s the community hub many schools are, it’s the blight that happens if you don’t properly dispose of the building. So, you get to realize it’s not even worth it if it’s just about money.
But on the flip side, if it’s going to be about student achievement, then it does become worth it.
So, I think about when we closed schools like Northside and Carver that literally had right around 200 kids. So, you just could not offer academic coursework, Advanced Placement classes and stuff like that at a high level when you have so few kids. And plus, you have so much extra dollars just to supplement so they can have a whole slate of teachers. So, I think the focus there was we are closing schools and take these kids to a school that is bigger with more kids where we can do more offerings.
But I don’t think that was the right approach either because there’s so much under the hood before you get to improving achievement.
And then the next round, we said let’s truly if we’re going to do these combinations, let’s truly invest in the school. And I think the best example is Westhaven. We’re going to invest in human capital there, we’re going to invest in additional operational dollars and give the leader more flexibility. I think that’s been great. (The state has recognized the school as having some of the highest academic growth both years it has been open.)
Let’s talk about Destination 2025, the district’s ambitious plan to improve education by 2025. Out of 39 academic goals, nine were met in the most recent annual report. What happened?
I think the new state standards were a wake-up call. Our graduation rate has increased since I took the job, but the college readiness has not. So, when you are testing college-ready standards starting in ninth grade that’s hard when kindergarten through eighth grade you weren’t being prepared for those standards and all of a sudden you show up. And not to mention, even under the old standards, people were falling behind.
Even though we did our K-8 standards-based curriculum, we still don’t have a standards-based curriculum for high school. I suspect we’ll make a recommendation around that this year.
That’s just going to be some hard work of years, rolling up the sleeves and getting better and better and better.
How would you describe your legacy?
I think that’s for other people to describe. I would hope to be remembered as a servant leader. And I think that the characteristics of a servant leader is first you got to be humble. I think this was a very humbling experience for me and I approached it from a humble standpoint because I’m a lawyer. I knew I couldn’t come in here and say I knew everything.
I think too probably more specifically around legacy, I think we’ll be remembered for fixing a lot of the operational challenges that came with the [merged] district. People forget: when we merged, it was a mess. Literally a mess.
I think that started with being able to fix the finances. We started in the red every time. There’s no wiggle room. So, I think just being able to put together consistent plans to address that stuff — part of which required buy-in from the community and getting more dollars from the county commission — but then also doing the work to get the money in order. I would hope that’s part my legacy.
Any political aspirations in your future?
No. I have people all the time saying I was running for Congress, I was running for mayor, I was going to be the next education commissioner.
When I think about all the different public roles here in Memphis, I don’t think there’s any more high-impact public position that you could have than superintendent. What you’re doing, it affects so many folks. I just know the fishbowl and the constant public grind and the board meetings and the politics and all that. I can safely sit here and say I have no desire to ever be involved in a public role.
It will be so good to be able to send an email and not have somebody ask for it. It will be good not to eat, breathe and sleep something that becomes a part of who you are. You don’t get to be off as superintendent. I can’t be in the grocery store and say sorry I’m off. You’re superintendent regardless. So, just to have some sense of normalcy will be awesome.