MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Outgoing Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson sat down with WMC to reflect on his time leading the school system.
It all began at one of the most unsettling moments in the history of Memphis education.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would be superintendent of my former school district for six years," said Hopson.
Relaxed, smiling and neck tie-free, Dorsey Hopson, II, Esquire described his time as superintendent as both rewarding and challenging.
“I’ve had to lean a lot on my faith and do a lot of talking to God because a lot of times there would be things that just seemed impossible," said Hopson.
The Whitehaven High School alum was special counsel for Memphis City Schools in 2013.
“I think the best word to describe back then was chaos," said Hopson.
The board had surrendered the school charter forcing a merger with Shelby County Schools, lawsuits followed, and then County Superintendent John Aitken resigned.
“I remember there being polls about whether school would even open," said Hopson.
With a 100-million dollar school deficit, a 23-member school board asked Hopson to roll up his sleeves.
“I knew in my spirit the only way we would be able to get through it was the grace of God, hard work, teachers and school leaders and staff members," said Hopson.
He was forced to cut hundreds of jobs. Fast-forward to 2018, and the district is now 20 million dollars in the black.
“We’ve actually invested more than $50 million inside of schools the last couple of years. We’re probably the most fiscally stable urban school district in the country," said Hopson.
When the state began taking over under-performing schools, Hopson’s administration developed “Innovation Zones,” or I-Zones, using innovative strategies to increase student achievement.
“We really now have a national model for how to turn around priority and poor performance schools," said Hopson.
Hopson said he is proud to have built new schools in the inner city: Alcy, Goodlett, and Westhaven Elementary Schools.
“Some of those community investments will last for a long time and give a focus on equity," said Hopson.
One of the biggest challenges facing the school system: Underutilized schools he says take money directly from the classroom.
He hopes the community will embrace his plan to close, consolidate and build new schools with SCS spending up to 20 thousand dollars a month, just in utilities, on schools that are not full.
“It’s not fair. It’s an equity issue. If you’re poor, black or brown in the city of Memphis, you probably go to a school that’s raggedy," said Hopson.
He admits other companies have tried to recruit him for other jobs over the years, but leading a health initiative for insurance giant Cigna made sense.
“Flexibility to be able to spend more time with my family. Secondly, I want to work with some outstanding people and the do something I can be passionate about and be valued at in, and all of those fit the bill," said Hopson.
He understands first-hand the importance of his works.
“I know without a shadow of a doubt that for many of our kids, the education system is their last chance in life to change their circumstances. I know how important it is because I’m a kid from, a single mom raised me. My dad struggled with drug addiction as I was growing up so I saw how that can impact a household," said Hopson.
When people look back on his legacy, he hopes they will see that his decision-making was based on what was best for kids.
“I think if we don’t figure out a way to support all our kids, particularly the least of these who’ve been troubled and have gone through different things through no fault of their own they’re in the circumstances they are, then we’re not going to be able to be as great a city as we want to be,” said Hopson.