Tuesday, September 07, 2010

TOP STORY > >Hopson defining goals to improve

Leader article by John Hofheimer

Charles Hopson must be in hog heaven. The new Pulaski County Special School District superintendent says he loves a good challenge, and does he have one now.

As a principal, Hopson’s been successful in turning around the fortunes of the Portland, Ore., highs schools and confronting problems caused by issues of race and poverty.

But now he leads a district that’s lost enrollment every year for at least a decade—a district famous for a bitterly divided school board, hired-and-fired superintendents, perpetual conflict and frequent court battles between the teachers’ union and school board, and a district seeking unitary status in federal district court. Should it succeed, it will face new budgetary challenges as millions of dollars in state “deseg money” are phased out.

Many PCSSD schools are in academic trouble. With few exceptions, its 34 schools are half-a-century old and need restoring or replacing and Jacksonville is committed to seceding and forming its own school district at the first opportunity.

There are demonstrated disparities in academic performance and discipline based upon race and/or poverty.

His first district-wide move—changing the bell schedule—stirred controversy and ended in reversal.

But other changes, already implemented at Jacksonville High School, show promise.

Hopson says he welcomes the challenges and that he’s cautiously optimistic.

He put a central office administrator, Karl Brown, director on special assignment, in the office and in the halls at Jacksonville High School.

Two weeks into the school year, “I had five people come to me and tell me that Jacksonville High School is a completely different place than last year,” Hopson said in an exclusive interview last week. “That was a structure I put in place there based on quick analysis.”

One person who has praised the change is a member of the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers. “It’s a whole different thing,” another person told him.

Hopson says that student behavior there shows significant improvement.

“We know the building has been cleaned. Teachers are focused. There’s less hanging out in the hallway, students are expressing that the environment there is more conducive to learning,” Hopson said.

“What I’m hearing is that Jacksonville High School is more controlled. The students are less disruptive and more orderly.

“I sense a turnaround. You take those small kinds of successes. That right there is enough to say there is hope.

“I have very high expectations,” Hopson said. “I doubt the district in five years will be where I want it to be, but …
it will not be where it is now.”


Hopson’s got a whole satchel full of new ideas—one employee said the new mantra among district employees might be: “We’ve never done it like that before.”

Some are sure to be controversial and who knows how many will even be implemented:

Year-round school, changing the bell schedule, mainstreaming virtually all students and making advanced-placement classes open to all. Making teachers accountable for educating students and helping or dismissing those who don’t make the grade.

Not the least of his new ideas is transparency—open communication and making decisions publicly and with public input.

In his 100-day listening tour, he’s visiting his third school in the district, meeting with patrons and teachers so far in two ofthem. Originally slated for one-hour events, one lasted more than two hours, the other four hours.

He’s stood up to the board and met with the teachers’ union officials.


But along with this apparent early success at Jacksonville, Hopson has had to retreat from his first across-the-board edict—changing the elementary school bell schedule.

He wanted to start the school day earlier, give students more instruction time and move the teacher prep time to within the school day. Parents objected to putting kids out at the bus stop so early and teachers said the change violated their contract.

The bell schedule is part of the teacher’s negotiated contract, and despite efforts by four school board members to dump the union and its contract, the board has been unable to successfully follow the law in those efforts.

Thus the union remains the teachers’ negotiating agent, the existing professionally negotiated agreement remains in effect and Hopson agreed to leave the elementary school schedule the same.

Hopson said he backed away from the so-called “bell-schedule” controversy because it was “an existing point of contention in the district with associations and strong feelings already in place.”

So for the time being, all schools will start at 7:30 a.m., even though that will require aftercare for some students at various elementary schools until parents can get by to pick them up and make different arrangements for next semester.

He said the bell schedule would be examined again in the future.

“Instruction needs to drive the beginning and end of school, not transportation limitations.

“I’m pushing my transportation people to be more creative,” he said.

For all of the district’s storied problems, “I expected a bit more turbulence than I’ve experienced,” Hopson said. “I’m pleased that what I expected is not what I experienced. This district has enormous promise.”


Hopson said that not only is his administration based on the corporate model, he is a corporate-trained superintendent.

When he lived and worked in Portland, Nike, the shoe and athletic apparel giant, awarded a grant to his district and paid a professional corporate manager to work with administrators as mentors.

“I went to the Nike headquarters, went off campus and worked with top-level executives. My high school had a business manager, funded by Nike.

“The difference is, we are not producing widgets, we are producing students. But the focus is still on excellence and we’ll use corporate constructs to get there,” Hopson said.

Toward that end, Hopson has combined some cabinet-level positions and brought in experienced people to oversee certain areas. He’s brought in a man who managed facilities for the Air Force for decades to oversee construction, repair and maintenance of PCSSD buildings.

His chief technology officer already has saved the district tens of thousands of dollars in the purchase of new software and hardware, he said.

“We have a blend of people who are experts in their fields. We’ll have the resources and the paradigm shift,” Hopson said.

“We have two deputy superintendents focused on academic accountability,” he pointed out.


Another thing that is changed from last year is that school board president Tim Clark is no longer micromanaging the district.

Clark billed the district mileage for more than 100 trips to the district office after firing Supt. James Sharp and installing his personal choice, Rob McGill, as the interim superintendent.

“That’s not happening this year,” Hopson said.

“As instructional leader, I need to have the autonomy to move forward without their interference as policy makers.”

Hopson said the board has “showed respect for me as the instructional leader.”

With his willingness to talk and emphasis on transparency, Hopson seems to be earning grudging respect from PACT as well.

He has met with their leaders at least twice to discuss his agenda and hear their concerns, and while they are not necessarily in accord, the lines of communications are opening up, essential to building trust and a working relationship.


Hopson has ideas that are currently out of the mainstream, such as someday going to a year-round school year and mainstreaming virtually all students and making advanced-placement classes available to them.

“We need to look at models that are not agrarian,” Hopson said. The current school year is based on the outdated time when all family members were needed to help gather the crops.

Increasingly, districts are going to the year-round school model, with perhaps one-month breaks between trimesters. Studies have shown that during summers, students lose a lot of what they’ve been taught.

This is not going to be an immediately popular notion with students, parents or teachers, all of whom have grown accustomed to about 10 weeks of summer break. If it happens, “It’s going to be uncomfortable to push past the status quo,” Hopson said.

“But we have to prepare students to be world class.”

“In my prior years working with unions in Oregon, I have been able to work collaboratively with the unions to get ineffective teachers…out of the classroom and we’ve started that same conversation here. In recent talks that I’ve had with PACT, I believe principals should be instructional leaders in the classroom, should be visible walking into those classrooms assessing effective (teaching) practices, those are some of the same expectations that they share.

“The one thing I will not compromise on is poor instruction in the classroom,” the superintendent sai.

“If I am able to gain a degree of consensus around accountability in the classroom, and also support my accountability for principals being strong instructional leaders in their schools, those two issues collectively will mean greater outcomes for our students,” Hopson said.


He said he wants his principals to have “culturally relevant” teaching that takes into consideration the issues of race and poverty and not seeing those issues as excuses for why students cannot achieve at high levels but recognizing them …so that they are able to empower students as opposed to having the issues become barriers.

“Those two issues can easily become barriers for students who have tremendous promise academically, but are struggling with many of those dilemmas in the schools,” he said.

More simply put, Hopson would mainstream all students, have high expectations of them and then give them—along with their teachers—the tools they need to succeed.

“When we engage students who are underrepresented in advance placements and overrepresented in suspension and expulsions in a relevant, meaningful way by removing race and poverty as barriers and pushing them into those classes, we affirm them and gave them the confidence to succeed,” Hopson said.

He says he’s seen it work in Portland and it will work here.

“We moved students in mainstream classes, and when we did that with the inclusionary approach, scores went up. We did that with special-needs students—I’m a very strong proponent of inclusion.”

As a result of that, in Portland, at Hopson’s once-troubled school, “We met benchmarks.”

Hopson says this approach not only encourages achievement, but also is successful in finding fairness in discipline.

These are issues not only important to the students and the future success of the district, but which have been at the very heart of the desegregation case currently before District Judge Brian Miller.