When Charles Hopson was principal of Franklin High School in Portland, Ore., he got a note from the Latino and Asian clubs.
"Thank you for believing in us."
For Hopson, 52, now a deputy superintendent at Portland Public Schools, the note was confirmation of the changes to the English Language Learner program during his tenure.
"It made me aware of the fact that all along the potential was there for those students," he said.
While he was principal, the school changed its ELL program so students were mainstreamed into regular classes with support from ELL teachers. He also instituted classes taught in Chinese and Spanish.
The old model, he said, put up barriers for the students, who didn't have cognitive deficiencies, just language barriers.
"To isolate them was criminal," he said.
The result over a two-year period: 10th-grade ELL students' proficiency on standardized tests increased from 9 percent to 41 percent in math, and 4 percent to 7 percent in reading, according to news accounts.
Hopson is one of seven finalists for the Lincoln Public Schools superintendent position.
Hopson, who grew up in the small town of Prescott, Ark., and went to a segregated school as a child, has made a career of change.
He began teaching special education in an Arkansas high school and became a principal by age 26.
Portland Public Schools recruited him, he said, based on his success as principal at two schools. He moved west in 1989.
He served as vice principal of two schools there before taking over as principal at Tubman Middle School.
From there, he became principal of Franklin High School, then deputy superintendent overseeing high schools. He now oversees all districtwide programs including immersion and focus programs.
During his tenure as principal, both the high school and middle school saw improvement in achievement. Franklin High, he said, was among the first two high schools in district history to meet federal No Child Left Behind benchmarks.
Tubman had a large black population, high suspension rates and low test scores when he arrived, he said.
During his tenure as principal from 1995 to 2004, the number of students meeting reading benchmarks went from 9 percent to 50 percent and the suspension rate dropped, he said.
Shay James, who succeeded him as principal at Franklin, also taught at Tubman when Hopson was there.
He had an incredible instincts in dealing with people, particularly for hiring the right people, she said.
At Tubman, those hires allowed the staff to have conversations about race, and how to make instruction culturally relevant to students, she said.
Hopson's personal experiences helped shape his passion to help all students achieve, he said.
His early school years were spent in a segregated school in Arkansas. There were inequities in facilities, but the teaching was "second to none," he said.
Teachers believed in students' ability to succeed and knew they'd face barriers.
"We were told, ‘you have to be twice as good, you have to try twice as hard,'" he said. "We couldn't just achieve at normal levels; we had to overachieve."
His father, a pentecostal minister and World War II veteran, then insisted he go to a white school before forced integration started, he said.
It was hard, he said, but he did well. But looking back, one of the things lost during integration was the fundamental belief students had that they could achieve.
Many students of color today believe they can't succeed, he said. He wants to change that.
Case in point: During his tenure at Franklin, the school increased the number of AP courses.
Black students -- and their parents -- were begging to get out of the classes because they thought they couldn't do it, James said.
The teachers said no.
Hopson said no.
"I had to close the door on allowing them to get out" he said.
They did succeed, and today at Franklin one AP English class has 40 percent students of color and five special education students.
Susan Bartley, the teacher, stressed that Hopson supports students of all races.
"I've seen him stand up for students of many different backgrounds," she said.
Hopson stressed that offering opportunities to all students also means continuing to focus on those already doing well.
Dee Simmons, who represents Portland teachers in contract negotiations and labor disputes, said he and Hopson haven't always agreed on issues -- but are always able to work through disagreements.
"I would characterize Dr. Hopson as an honest man with a lot of integrity."
And other schools districts have, apparently, taken note.
He was a finalist for a superintendent job in St. Paul Minn., and a semifinalist for a job in Milwaukee.
He's now a finalist for the superintendent job at Pulaski County Special School District in Little Rock, Ark., where he started his career.
Hopson, who is married and has a 19-year-old daughter, said it was a difficult decision to apply for the Lincoln Public Schools job. But he was drawn to the district because it seems to be a progressive district with a high graduation rate that wants to stay "ahead of the curve."
"The promise of what I see happening in Lincoln and the forward-thinking kind of things I see happening with the board and the community has compelled me to stay the course."
Reach Margaret Reist at 473-7226 or firstname.lastname@example.org.