Tuesday, April 27, 2010

TOP STORY >> He’ll help Jacksonville, new district chief says

Leader staff writer

The condition of Jacksonville schools is already on the radar screen of incoming superintendent for Pulaski County Special School District, Charles Hopson, who says he intends to make them a priority of his administration.

In an interview Monday, Hopson said he was aware of the presentation last week to the PCSSD school board by senior students at Jacksonville High School about the rundown conditions there.

“The Jacksonville area is a high priority for me,” Hopson said. “I know how they see themselves as a separate district, but for now they are a part of the Pulaski County Special School District.”

Conditions “that threaten the safety and health of students” not only are a barrier to learning, but are tantamount to a “civil rights violation,” Hopson said. “It is our moral responsibility to address structural inequalities that make learning difficult for students already challenged by social and economic inequalities.”

In a letter released Monday from Hopson to all school district employees, he said that the district has the potential to become “the most cutting-edge, progressive and innovative district in this state and country,” but that it will take time and the willingness to weather uncertainty through the growth process.

“I think the one thing I would want all of you to know about me personally is that as a non-traditional instructional leader, I thrive on pushing the limits of old paradigms or status quo and stepping outside the box of business as usual to explore the possibilities,” Hopson wrote.

“In reaching the promise of our potential as a district, it is going to feel uncomfortable, risky, volatile and threatening for some of you in this organization. No organization, or individual for that matter, reaches a level of desired gain or change without experiencing pain.”

The school board on April 15 voted to hire Hopson, an Arkansas native, who for the past 20 years has worked for the Portland, Ore., public schools, where he is currently a deputy superintendent.

He will take the reins of PCSSD July 1, pending his contract negotiations.

In the letter to employees, Hopson said that his long-range vision is for PCSSD to become a district “where poverty, race, disability, language and sexual orientation are not predictors of where students are disproportionately represented in academic performance or discipline data.”

Hopson says his experience in the Portland schools, where he implemented practices that helped overcome the barriers associated with disadvantaged students, gives him the confidence that the same can happen here.

Children from impoverished backgrounds must be helped to transcend their internalized negative beliefs about their ability to excel, and the district needs to provide quality instruction, with the same rigor and resources at all the schools, whether they are in Maumelle or Jacksonville.

“Race and poverty are challenges but not excuses for why students can’t perform,” Hopson said. “It is less about cognitive ability and more about structural inequalities that do not allow students to have equitable access. It is about internalized barriers, about changing ‘can’t’ to ‘can’ and then providing a nurturing environment.”

All teachers want to become better, Hopson said, and it will be up to district administrators, including principals, to provide the leadership and tools to help them improve.

Making sure that no zone in the district gets the short shrift when it comes to allocation of resources is something he will keep watch over, Hopson said, calling his style “systemic equity leadership.”

Jacksonville is a “case in point,” he noted. “As superintendent, I look at the needs of the entire district, not specific to any particular zone, at the exclusion of others. The needs of every student are considered. Funding is to be prioritized to touch every part of the district.”

In the first 100 days on the job, Hopson plans on meeting with “stakeholders” at every school – custodians, clerical staff, paraprofessionals, teachers and administrators – to find out what they need to be most productive. His hope is that will set the tone for his administration, so if nothing else, it will be remembered for its transparent communication, inclusion and collaboration, he said.

“If you don’t have those three things, you create a climate of distrust,” Hopson said. “People start to lose hope. There needs to be collaboration where every person feels valued, affirmed and listened to, for there to be an opportunity for students to flourish.”