Tuesday, June 01, 2010

TOP STORY > >Superintendent: Must raise level of expectations

Leader staff writer

It is a universally recognized truism – the success or failure of any individual or enterprise starts with what is believed to be possible.

Charles Hopson, incoming superintendent for Pulaski County Special School District, refers to reality-shaping – and often unexamined – beliefs, assumptions and attitudes as “an internal narrative.” What we are told about ourselves comes to be what we believe, he says.

Hopson’s plan for PCSSD is simple, though not necessarily simply executed: challenge the counter-productive internal narratives at work, replace them with more positive ones, and by doing so raise performance on every level, starting with the top leadership, then the ranks of principals, teachers and staff, down to the individual students, especially those of minority race and lower socio-economic class.

“I want to be able to eliminate race and poverty as predictors of a student’s success or failure,” Hopson said in an interview last week. “There should not be assumptions based on visible indicators – a student’s race, gender or sexual orientation.”

Hopson, in town last week for a flurry of meetings with district stakeholders, took time out to talk about the potency of the thoughts we carry about ourselves and one another – and how that affects education.

In his “listening tour” last week, Hopson says one of the best bits of advice he heard came from a local mayor about perception.

“You have got to address and make sure that the curb-side appeal of this district is inviting and attractive to patrons,” he said, recounting the mayor’s words. “It is like looking for a new house. It doesn’t matter what is doing well on the inside if the curb-side appeal does not grab people. They will drive on to the next district.”

So what might make parents pass up PCSSD for another, more “appealing” district?

Hopson, who is as unpretentious as he is serious about his new responsibilities, did not miss a beat in ticking off what will be his top three agenda priorities when he takes the reins of the district a month from now: the much-disputed teacher contract, the poor conditions of many of the district’s 37 facilities and the troubling racial and ethnic disparities in academic performance and suspension rates.

He says what he saw last week at Jacksonville High School, where tiles fell from a ceiling with a nudge, is “unacceptable.”

“No student in this district should have to attend a facility where conditions are a barrier to academic performance.”


Hopson is a soft-spoken man with a persona of gentleness and gentility, yet he has spent most of his career in Portland, Ore., public schools, an urban district with 45,000 students. Half of that time he was principal at an inner-city high school with demographics and struggles similar to PCSSD.

“The transition to that school was very similar to this district,” he recalled. “It was in a leadership crisis. My appointment was in November. It was frenzied chaos. I didn’t look where to start – I just started.”

Hopson, a native of Prescott, got his start as a special-education teacher at Guy Perkins High School, then did a short stint at
PCSSD’s Northwood Junior High School.

At age 26, he began his long career as a school principal at an elementary school in Helena. In no time, he was wooed away to Portland, where he has been a middle school and high school principal. Only two years ago did he take a central office post, as deputy superintendent over learning services.

Now at 52, he is eager to bring back all he has learned over the years to his home state.

Lessons learned at Guy Perkins High School seem fresh as yesterday.

“My group of students was mainly basketball players, and when you have the entire basketball team in your resource room, you question why,” Hopson said. “How was it,” he asked the boys, that when they played ball, they were “80 percent on the free-throw line, but then wound up in the resource room?”

That year, Hopson divided his time between teaching the boys how to read and “talking about expectations.” He would tell the ball-players, “It is not because you can’t, but because you are allowing yourself to not make the same effort in the classroom as on the court.”

Hopson is deeply troubled by the fact that being a good student is too often seen as incongruent with the black culture and identity.

“You’re acting white if you excel academically – when you allow that message to be internalized, that is the greatest disservice to children of African descent,” Hopson said. “Therein lies the heart of the achievement gap.”

As principal at a Portland middle school of “non-readers,” Hopson said before standardized testing each year, he would assemble the students and tell them, “There are those who would defy your ability to do well on these tests because of your ancestry. That is a lie.

“If I didn’t deal with the internalized message, they would not do well. You have to provide a counter narrative, one that says, ‘you can, you will,’ because every day of their lives is from a narrative that defines them from a deficit construct.”

Within a couple of years, test scores at the middle school “skyrocketed,” Hopson said, thanks to higher expectations of students and an aggressive, flexible reading program.

As principal of a Portland high school, by raising expectations and engaging students in learning, suspension rates, including those for black males, plummeted.

Hopson knows what it is like to grow up with a self-affirming narrative playing in his head. He credits his father who instilled in his children – Hopson is the oldest of four – that they could and were expected to excel.

“Father taught us that expectations in this country of us as a people of African descent was a lie,” Hopson said. “We weren’t even allowed to go into stores with separate entrances. I still hear his voice every day saying, ‘you can, you will, no matter how insurmountable.’”

That message was strongly reinforced in the segregated schools the Hopson children attended in Prescott.

“We were told that you can and will be anything you choose to be,” Hopson said. “Unfortunately, with integration of the schools, that narrative did not get passed on to students who were not the majority. We will have to deal with that in our own desegregation efforts.”

Hopson intends to begin dismantling any counter-productive assumptions and attitudes in PCSSD in regard to academic excellence, race and class beginning with a retreat for district top administrators coming up soon.

“We will explore our own issues of race, poverty and personal beliefs and how those tie in with the environment we create in the district, because we set the tone at the top, and those core values and principals are going to drive how we move forward,” Hopson said.


The PCSSD school board’s decision to no longer recognize the two unions that for years served as the collective bargaining agents for teachers and support staff and replace them with two advisory groups, called personnel policy committees (PPC) has many employees, teachers especially, feeling angry, afraid and vulnerable. The last day of union recognition is set for June 30, the day before Hopson starts full time as superintendent.

Hopson has said he will respect the board’s decision to make a PPC the platform of personnel policy-setting. What counts in his mind is not whether the teacher contract has been forged by a union or a PPC. What counts is mutual respect and collaboration in working out the differences, he says. He expects cooperation of all parties.

“I will aggressively reach out to PACT (Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers) and invite their input and embrace those teachers who have been part of the current PACT structure.

“We are going to have to reach common ground on points of the contract,” Hopson said. “The contract must address student performance and the role teachers play as the front-line individuals in the classroom, but allow for teachers to be well-compensated and give them the best benefits package available.”

And to underscore his words about mutual respect, Hopson adds, “In interactions with principals, teachers should never feel
threatened or in any way harassed.”


Lynn Buedeseldt, a principal in the Portland School District who has known Hopson for 22 years, says that no one should see Hopson’s gentle demeanor as a sign he can’t lead in tough situations.

“People in your district will be wondering for a while, ‘Is this guy for real?’He does not look like what you might expect of a superintendent – a harder, out-there, stronger personality, a dominating presence,” Buedeseldt said. “He doesn’t work on that model. What you have is a very humble man who gets this amazing work done.”

She is “not a lone voice” in her praise of Hopson, Buedeseldt said.

“What you’ll hear from those who have worked with him – principals, teachers, parents, students – is that he does not operate from anger or blame, she said. “He is always honoring where everybody is. It doesn’t matter where you are, or what you have stuck in your craw, but he keeps you always focused on equity for children. He doesn’t ever say, ‘you are the problem,’ but rather, ‘how do we find common ground and move forward?’

Buedeseldt credits Hopson for taking a courageous lead in open discussions about race, white privilege and inequities in education in the Portland district and community.

“You can’t force that down people’s throats or they will get angry and walk away,” Buedeseldt said. “He doesn’t blame me for being a white woman with privilege and money. He values all of us, but he does hold me accountable. He brings tough messages to a lot of places of privilege and power in the state of Oregon, and you never hear anything negative about him.”