chalk talk

State Board of Education member Cato Johnson on how education is like health care

PHOTO: Daarel Burnette II
State Board of Education member Cato Johnson in his Methodist Healthcare office in Memphis
Cato Johnson has spent most of his adult life working in health care, but always has been interested in education. Appointed to the State Board of Education last July by Gov. Bill Haslam, Johnson now is helping to forge Tennessee’s education path, working with the state Department of Education on everything from standards to textbooks.
A Memphis native, Johnson is senior vice president of Methodist Healthcare, a church-affiliated nonprofit health care system based in Memphis with facilities across the Midsouth. Much of his policy work has been focused on health – as vice chairman of the state Health Planning and Advisory Board and chairman of the TennCare Medical Care Advisory Committee. He also has served as chairman and vice chairman of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.
In an interview with Chalkbeat, Johnson, 67, discusses how his experience in health care and passion for education will help him better represent students in Memphis.

You’re a native Memphian. What schools did you go to? 

I graduated from Carver High School, then I went to the University of Memphis for undergrad and graduate school.

Other than as a student, what has been your experience with public schools in Memphis?
I was inducted into the Memphis City Schools Hall of Fame. I have served on numerous ad hoc committees for the school system when it was Memphis City Schools. I served on the THEC [Tennessee Higher Education Commission] for several years — I was the chair for one year the vice chair for two years — and I’ve served on the Shelby County Schools Foundation board. My background is in education, in both undergraduate and graduate school, but I never taught.
How does your work in health care translate to education?
One of the things that you realize in health policy and being involved is health care is, at the end of the day, the patient is the center of all you do. In education, it’s no different. The student has to be in the center of all discussions: How do we make sure that we have exceptional standards for our students? That our students will be ready for college or other programs? The second thing is the tremendous importance of the physician, who is going to deliver services to the patient. In education, it’s the teachers and instructors. How do we support them so they can do what they do best, and that’s teach our students at the highest level? We always debate a great deal about what’s best in health care, funding and protocols. But at the end of the day, the patient wants to see you’re doing the best you can do to help him get better. Same goes for education.
What’s surprised you since you started working with the State Board of Education?
Cato Johnson
Cato Johnson

I haven’t really been surprised, having been involved in THEC. I think what I have been the most pleased with is the tremendous dedication of the staff who work with the State Board of Education and the Department of Education – how well prepared everyone is, the research that’s done, the amount of work that’s done, and the scrutiny they give their work. The other thing I’ve been impressed with is the new executive director, Sara Heyburn, and the new commissioner, Candice McQueen. I think they’re going to do great things.

How does being a Memphian impact your work with the State Board of Education?
I think the great impact is when you look at the level of poverty in this community. When you look at the fact that we’re third from the bottom in terms of income, that 28 percent of our citizens live in poverty, that more than 80 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch. When you look at the fact that so many live in very, very dire circumstances, you realize the importance of education – that education is the path to success. It leads me to understand how seriously I take my role as a member of the State Board of Education. This is critically important – what education can do to move a community to another level.
Industries will not move into a city where they do not believe you have a strong school system, or an educated workforce.
What do you expect to be the biggest issues the State Board of Education tackles? 
Standards are extremely important. And I don’t have any doubt that we will continue the debate on choice. How does that work? Is it feasible to talk about this choice versus that choice? In Memphis, we’ll continue to have debates about the I-Zone [Innovation Zone] and the Achievement School District, but one of the things I’m most gratified by is that education is a tremendous priority of this governor, and if we’re going to have strong support for education, the governor must make it a priority.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Each month, Chalkbeat conducts a Q&A interview with a different leader, innovator, influential thinker or hero across Tennessee’s education community. We invite our readers to email Chalkbeat your suggestions for future subjects to maldrich@chalkbeat.org.
Contact Grace Tatter at gtatter@chalkbeat.org.
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future of SCS

Dorsey Hopson leaving Shelby County Schools, sources say

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson with students at A.B. Hill Elementary School in Memphis celebrating academic progress.

Sources report that Superintendent Dorsey Hopson will resign after five years of leading Shelby County Schools.

Rumors of Hopson’s departure have been flying for months and he said as recently as early October he had no intention of leaving, saying he was “excited about our momentum.” Three sources told Chalkbeat Monday night that they had heard from district administrators that Hopson will make an announcement on Tuesday detailing his transition from the helm.

The Commercial Appeal also reported Monday night that Hopson will likely resign.

Check back with Chalkbeat on Tuesday for updates.

Hopson took charge of Shelby County Schools in 2013 as the first superintendent after the former city district merged with the suburban school system. An attorney, he previously worked as associate general counsel for Atlanta Public Schools and later as general counsel for the Clayton County School System in Georgia. In 2008, he became general counsel of Memphis City Schools.

Hopson has overseen a tumultuous time for the district. In 2013, the city’s school district folded into the county system, a complicated logistical feat that still reverberates today. The following year, six suburban towns split off to create their own districts with about 34,000 students. At the same time, the state-run Achievement School District grew as it took over district schools that had chronic low performance on state tests. Nearly two dozen district schools closed during that time as Hopson and his staff rushed to fill budget deficits left in the wake of all the changes and reductions in student enrollment.

Despite the strenuous circumstances, fewer schools are on the state’s list of lowest-performing schools and the district’s Innovation Zone has boosted test scores at a faster rate than the state’s district. Schools across the state are looking to strategies in Memphis to improve schools — a far cry from six years ago. And recently, Hopson was among nine finalists for a national award recognizing urban district leaders.

In recent years, the Shelby County Schools board has rated Hopson as satisfactory, though not exemplary, and extended his contract last year to 2020 with a $16,000 raise. Next week, the board is scheduled to present its most recent evaluation of his performance as the panel seeks to tweak how it rates the district’s leader.

Hopson was one of two superintendents consulted by Gov.-elect Bill Lee while on the campaign trail, and Hopson publicly expressed his support of the Republican from Williamson County before Lee won the election. Lee told Memphis TV station Local 24 News that he hadn’t spoken with the superintendent specifically about his administration but added: “He has a role. We talk. We’ve become friends. I have a great deal of respect for his expertise.”

Hopson told Chalkbeat before the election that he was “not angling for a job,” but rather that he and Lee had developed a mutual respect while getting to know each during the last year and a half. Sources did not confirm Hopson’s next steps.

Reporters Laura Faith Kebede and Marta W. Aldrich contributed to this report. 

Super Search

Denver superintendent search nearing end with one local name getting support — and calls for multiple finalists

PHOTO: Denver Post file

As the search for Denver’s next school superintendent approaches a key juncture, support is mounting in some quarters for an internal candidate who many believe is likely a front-runner: Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova.

At the same time, parents and other residents are calling on the board to name more than one finalist next week — preferably, three — and to give the community an opportunity to vet them. The chance for parents to provide feedback is especially important, they said, in a district with a poor reputation for transparency and what one mother called a “paternalistic pattern.”

“If we are only given one finalist, we will feel that the decision has already been made behind closed doors,” said another mother, Angela Tzul, who lives in the far northeast Montbello neighborhood, where tensions with the district are particularly high.

Denver Public Schools is Colorado’s largest school district and one known nationally for cultivating a “portfolio” of different school types, including independently run charter schools, and encouraging families to choose among them. The district serves nearly 93,000 students, the majority of whom are Latino and black and come from low-income families.

This is the first time in 10 years the district has had to choose a new superintendent. Longtime leader Tom Boasberg, who was responsible for many of the reforms, stepped down last month. The school board is expected to name finalists next Monday and make a hire by Dec. 10.

The board has kept mum about how many finalists it is choosing. When member Lisa Flores gave a public update on the search last week, she was careful to say “finalist/finalists.”

She did, however, provide a window into the search by revealing that the board interviewed seven candidates. They included two superintendents, two deputy superintendents, one state superintendent, and two non-traditional candidates, Flores said.

Any national search would likely extend to leaders of urban school districts with similar philosophies and student populations, such as Indianapolis, Atlanta, and San Antonio. Here in Colorado, the administration of two-term Gov. John Hickenlooper is coming to an end in early January, and many top state administrators are likely looking for new jobs.

Cordova has said she’s interested in leading the district. She grew up in a Mexican-American family in Denver, graduated from high school here, returned after college to teach in the district, and worked her way up to principal, administrator, and now deputy superintendent. She served as acting superintendent for six months in 2016 while Boasberg was on sabbatical.

Thirty-five district principals, assistant principals, and program directors wrote a letter to school board members last week, urging them to choose Cordova. The school leaders called her “a hometown and homegrown exemplar” who has made the city proud and who “understands the nuances and complexities of our unique organization.”

“Her presence is calm and warm, yet urgent and motivating,” the letter says. “She understands the political climate of public education and is a fierce advocate for every child in Denver.”

Sheldon Reynolds, principal of the Center for Talent Development at Greenlee, an elementary school in west Denver, was one of the school leaders who signed the letter.

“While we don’t know all the people (in the) running, we just wanted to voice our support for her to take the helm,” he wrote in an email to Chalkbeat.

Throughout August, September, and early October, the school board collected feedback from more than 4,500 people about the characteristics the next superintendent should have. In many ways, Cordova fits the bill. She is a person of color with both teaching and administrative experience, and a deep knowledge about the challenges facing Denver’s public schools.

She also has experience tackling those challenges, including the pervasive and persistent test score gaps between students of color and white students, and between students from low-income families and students from wealthier families.

But her long track record is precisely why some people who are disillusioned with the district don’t want to see her promoted. They see the district’s failure to significantly close those gaps — or to hire more teachers of color, for instance — as her failures, too.

“Susana Cordova, I know you’re in here,” Montbello football coach Gabe Lindsay said at last week’s school board meeting during public comment. “We think you are going to be the next superintendent of DPS, which is concerning because Ms. Cordova does not have a track record of closing achievement gaps. She has the track record that this previous administration has.”

He cited a statistic that while 72 percent of white students were reading and writing on grade level last year, as determined by the state literacy test, just 28 percent of black students were.

If Cordova is selected, Lindsay said she needs to “come to the table with a plan to fix this district’s mindset that it is OK to leave students behind.”

Parents of students who attend charter schools have repeatedly said they’d like the next superintendent to be someone who values school choice — that is, making it easy for students to choose to attend a school that is not their assigned boundary school, such as a charter.

Other parents have railed against charter schools for draining students and money from traditional district-run schools. The teachers union has been critical, too, even trying to negotiate a moratorium on the publicly funded yet privately run schools into its latest contract.

Cordova’s entire teaching and administrative experience has been in district-run schools, but she hasn’t given any indication that she’d get rid of charter schools or the ability for families to use a single application to apply to any district-run or charter school.

“I’ve got kids in the district as well,” Cordova told Chalkbeat in 2016. “Frequently, as I’m talking with friends who are parents or people in the neighborhood, they say, ‘It’s so much harder now. It was so much easier when you just went [to the school down the street].’ But the upsides are so much higher than any of the downsides, particularly when you get into the right fit for your kid.”

The school board is planning opportunities for students, teachers, and parents to meet the finalist or finalists and provide their input, though not many details have been announced besides the dates: Dec. 4 and 5. That’s less than week before the board is set to make its final decision.