Wednesday, August 11, 2010

EDITORIAL >>High hopes for Hopson

“I am an agent for change,” Charles Hopson said when he came from Portland, Ore., to interview for the PCSSD superintendent’s job in February, and since his hire, he’s done nothing to dissuade us.

He’s lengthened the elementary-school day—a change the reliably uncooperative leadership of the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers is trying to scuttle in court or on the picket lines—and he brought in some of his own people to streamline operations, a consultant in human resources and a race-in-schools consultant to try to minimize the disparities academically, in discipline and otherwise.

This school district has settled on a series of superintendents who simply weren’t up to the immense challenges, and plainly said the largest of those is to lead the divided and divisive school board, not to be jerked about by it.

There are essentially two models for running a school district and sad to say, the less democratic seems the best fit for this district right now—that is, if the guy or gal at the top is smart, creative, dedicated and inspired, and so far, we think perhaps Hopson is that guy.

This is still the Hopson honeymoon, but privately some board members are already grousing: “Hey, he works for us, we don’t work for him.”

It seems almost inevitable that he will be caught up in the blood sport that is PCSSD politics, but Hopson has installed his elements of his own team.

He’s brought in a technology expert from Portland.

He’s brought in a former lieutenant colonel as director of operations—the job he held in the military.

Hopson has hired a human-resources consultant and hired the author of “Courageous Conversation in Race” to hold workshops for his cabinet on the challenges of race in education.

Hopson is said to be very skilled at bringing people together, a calm and thoughtful man willing to listen to suggestions.

Those skills will be put to the test.

“He empowers people,” said one employee. “It’s part of the culture he’s fostering.”

Hopson is the professional here. Board members bank or own restaurant franchises or run small shops, work at Walmart, or assist airmen learning to fly C-130s on flight simulators at Little Rock Air Force Base.

But none are professional educators.

If all the dogs on a sled team pulled to a different point of the compass, ignoring the direction of the driver, the sled might go nowhere, or it might be pulled into a chasm or ripped asunder. Where it’s not going is the destination.

But when the driver sets a course and the team pulls together, the sled can reach its destination, directly and more quickly.
In some school districts—take Cabot and Lonoke, for instance—the superintendent leads and the board follows, questioning, offering alternatives and ultimately making the decisions.

Lonoke has for the past decade, first Sharron Havens and now John Tackett, set the agenda, presented a range of options, answered questions and gave the board the tools it needed to do the job. In turn, the board has given the superintendent the tools he needs to do the job.

Tackett has brought new ideas—most recently a pilot program using modified smart phones as handheld computers for all ninth-graders.

The superintendent is the professional educator. The other guys are farmers or bankers or businessmen.

None of the board members in Lonoke thinks he knows more about educating or leading a school district than the superintendent.

Then there’s PCSSD, where the board members seem to view professional educating, creativity and leadership as challenges to their authority.

This is a board largely comprising bullies intent upon getting their way, building schools in their own zones, securing contracts for their friends and who support the superintendent only as long as he supports their individual ambitions.

This is a board where the members see the superintendent only as an instrument of their collective will. And for the past few years, seldom has that will been collective.

Only a board as divisive and vindictive as this one could make the strident teachers’ union sympathetic.

We have a situation here where both the teachers’ union and the board are likely to see the progressive new superintendent as a threat to their power.

The only way to save this dysfunctional district is to get everyone pulling in the same direction, with the superintendent in the driver’s seat.

With apologies to John Lennon, all we are saying is give Charles a chance.