Friday, April 16, 2010

TOP STORY >> PCSSD looking to new start as it fills vacancy

Leader staff writer

It was a homecoming Thursday for Charles L. Hopson, who was selected to be superintendent of the Pulaski County Special School District.

The Arkansas native worked early in his career in the district and is a deputy superintendent for Portland, Ore., schools.

The vote at an emergency meeting to hire Hopson, originally from Prescott, was unanimous. Hopson’s start date and salary are yet to be determined in contract negotiations.

Hopson said immediately after the board vote, “I am deeply honored and humbled to be elected superintendent of a district where I started my teaching career. The vote in solidarity symbolizes that the time is now for the district to move forward in reconciliation and healing for the needs of the students.”

Hopson said that in coming back to PCSSD as superintendent is a way to give back to “a district and state that have given me so much.”

Hopson’s strong personal reasons for taking the post may provide the added incentive needed to stay for awhile to address the challenges faced by the district, the third largest in the state with about 17,000 students. He said he is “in it for the long haul.”

“I was at my last district for 20 years,” he said. “You cannot do this work in a hurry. Jobs like this are sometimes viewed as a steppingstone.”

In recent months, there have been several sources of tension, instability and distraction for district personnel, the board and school patrons: The board vote in December to decertify the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers as the bargaining agent for district certified personnel and a subsequent court challenge to that action; an investigation into allegations of racial insensitivity on the part of acting Superintendent Rob McGill and then the leak of the investigators’ report, possibly by a board member, triggering yet another investigation; the month-long hearing in federal court on the district’s compliance with its desegregation plan, the outcome of which may profoundly impact the future course and geographic configuration of the district.

On top of all that, back in March, one of two finalists withdrew her application days before the board was expected to make its pick for permanent hire for superintendent. Rather than hire the other, McGill, the board voted to reopen a national search once the court hearing concluded. A few days after that, McGill accepted an offer to head a charter school in Maumelle when his contract with PCSSD runs out at the end of June.

The board voted last week to again interview Hopson, who had been among the four top applicants selected for consideration back in the winter. The remaining candidate has since accepted another job offer.

To get the district back on track and focused on educating children, Hopson said that his priority in the first 100 days on the job will be “listening and building the capacity for trust” and “being sensitive to a lot of hurt and pain” around issues to do with the teachers union as well as “other areas where people have concerns about educating the children.”

His plan is to visit every school and sound out staff, including clerical and custodial workers, about their “aspirations and what we can be.”

“I call it a gap analysis,” Hopson said. His plan is then to return a set of recommendations to the board from “a grassroots perspective.”

“The worst thing we can do is assume what we see at this level is an accurate assessment,” Hopson said, alluding to the tensions in recent months around board actions.

He said there are “pockets of success that are tremendous and promising” in PCSSD schools and he wants to see to it that those successes are “duplicated and not isolated” so there is equity of opportunity for all students, no matter which school they attend.

Hopson went on to say that a “hallmark” of his administration will be to help create schools “where people feel comfortable sending their children – a district that is high performance and attractive as an option and the best district in the state.”

Hopson called the movement launched by some Jacksonville school residents to establish a separate school district should be seen as “a red flag” that the district should make a priority. He said his hope is that the district does not divide.

“At this point, I would like to think of this district as a unified school district,” he said, adding that he intends to “reach out” to Jacksonville and other areas in the district that may feel disenfranchised so that they are “valued and affirmed and don’t have to do that as an option.”

Charter schools too signal dissatisfaction with a school district, said Hopson, who is has experience with those in the Portland district.

“It is important to make sure that public schools are an attractive, viable option,” he said.

Hopson said he plans to stay out of the likely resumption of efforts by some board members to decertify the union, because that was set in motion prior to his being hired.

“I will honor what has taken place and preceded me,” Hopson said.

A vote to set a date to decertify may come as early as next Tuesday at the next monthly board meeting. Last week, Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Tim Fox ruled that the board’s December vote to decertify the union violated state law, although a school board does have the authority to decertify.

To meet statutory requirements, the board must first have policies in place to support a personnel policy committee, the entity which by law supplants a union as a teachers’ bargaining unit.

As the district moves forward, Hopson advocates being “straightforward and transparent about what we can do and limitations about what may be desired by the teachers or bargaining unit, while making sure that the lines of communication are open and people are treated with respect and dignity.”

Hopson said racial disparities in academic achievement and discipline rates will be a priority, applying what he learned while a principal at a Portland high school with high suspension and expulsion rates.

In time, those rates dropped below district averages and included rates for black males of 3 to 4 percent. A “culturally responsive” approach to learning and discipline and a school climate that promoted excellence were keys to success, he said.

“We focused on creating an environment of highest expectations and performance,” Hopson said. “Students saw themselves reflected in the curriculum and are rewarded for what they do. It is a process of affirmation.”

Hopson said that although he has been away from the state for 20 years, he has always regarded himself as “a transplanted Arkansan,” not an Oregonian.

“The values and experiences unique to this state I would not trade for anything and have been such an asset to me,” Hopson said. “I am glad I grew up here first.”

Hopson is married to the former Patricia Heard of Helena. She is a school media specialist. They have a daughter who attends college.

Hopson is the son of a minister and school cook for the Pulaski County schools. His father, Charles Hopson, is deceased. His mother, Lucy Hopson, lives in Sherwood.

He credits his father with imbuing him with his core values of “integrity, being a person of your word and treating people right.”

Hopson has two brothers, Billy Hopson, who works for the city of Little Rock, and Timothy Hopson, who works for the Little Rock School District.

After graduating from the University of Central Arkansas in 1976 with a degree in elementary education, Hopson took a teaching job in the Guy-Perkins School District in Faulkner County, then worked for two years as a special education teacher at then-Northwood Junior High in PCSSD.

From there, he relocated to Helena, where he was a school principal. He was recruited after four years to work in the Portland School District.

There he has moved up the ranks from teacher to principal and two years ago was tapped to be one of four deputy supervisors in the district of 46,000 students.

Hopson holds a doctorate degree in educational policy and management from the University of Oregon.

“I have been a change agent, working in some of the most challenging schools in the district,” Hopson said.