After nearly six years leading the school system in Memphis, Shelby County superintendent Dorsey Hopson announced on Tuesday that he was stepping down to join the health insurance company Cigna.
Rumors have been swirling that Hopson would leave the district, but some had anticipated that he would take a role in the administration of Governor-elect Bill Lee, whom Hopson supported in the recently-concluded gubernatorial contest.
Hopson’s name had been bandied about as a possible replacement for state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, who announced last week that she is leaving in January to lead the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.
In a press conference on Tuesday, Hopson said he was leaving to take a newly-created national role in Cigna’s government and education business sector practice.
He described the last six years as a “remarkable journey” that moved the district through monumental changes, including a merger of Memphis City Schools with the Shelby County school system and then a “de-merger” when six suburban communities broke away from Shelby County Schools to form their own districts.
That splintering left the remaining Shelby County district in a financial bind, facing multi-million-dollar deficits, school closures, and state takeover of some of its schools.
During Hopson’s tenure, the system moved from deficits to surpluses, from closing schools to opening new ones, and from laying off school employees to paying employees a living wage, he said at the press conference. (The district adopted a policy this year to pay employees a minimum wage of $15 an hour.)
“I would love to see this work to the finish line,” Hopson said. “But I feel confident what we have laid a strong foundation for the next leader of Shelby County Schools.”
Hopson’s resignation is effective Jan. 8.
He said that while it’s hard to pinpoint one specific thing, his biggest accomplishment was putting the district on stronger financial footing.
“Student outcomes are not nearly where we want them to be,” Hopson said.
“I can walk away knowing that this district is in much better shape than it was when I started, but also knowing that we’ve got a long way to go,” he said.
The Memphis Commercial Appeal called Shelby County’s academic performance during Hopson’s tenure a “mixed bag.”
Under Hopson, schools in the Shelby County district turnaround program—called the Innovation Zone—outpaced schools in the state-run turnaround program, called the Achievement Zone.
But the person responsible for running Shelby County’s turnaround program, Sharon Griffin, left earlier this year to run the state turnaround system. (Griffin was honored as an Education Week Leader to Learn From in 2016.)
The district has tentative plans to name an interim successor before the winter break, Shante K. Avant, the school board president, said at the press conference.
Avant said that she was proud to work with Hopson in the five years she has been on the board. He worked closely with the board to carry out its vision for better fiscal management and develop an academic program that the district will carry into the future, she said.
While Hopson and his team didn’t always get everything right, Avant said, she appreciated the transparency in the way his team approached their work.
Hopson was a finalist for this year’s Urban Superintendent of the Year Award, an honor given by the Council of the Great City Schools, the national advocacy and support organization for the nation’s urban school systems.
With nearly six years in the top job, Hopson has outlasted many of his colleagues running urban school systems. The average tenure for a big-city superintendent is close to six years, according to a new analysis the Edythe and Eli Broad Foundation released this year. (That’s much longer than the popularly-held belief that the average urban schools chief sticks around for just a little more than three years.)
In his statement Tuesday, Hopson acknowledged that it was a tough job and that he had been thinking about leaving for a while. One of his children, now a sophomore in college, was in 8th grade when he took the job. He had missed many practices and games, he said. Two of his children attend schools in the district.
“It takes a lot of out of you personally,” he said. “It takes a lot out of your family.”
Photo caption: Dorsey Hopson resigned Tuesday as superintendent of the Shelby County school system in Memphis. Photo courtesy Shelby County Schools.
A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.