harlem renaissance

Librarian recruits Cornel West to Harlem school that could close

McIntosh with Muriel Petioni after she spoke at Wadleigh about being one of the first black, female doctors in America

A dogged school librarian who runs a speaker series at his struggling Harlem school has recruited the provocative scholar Cornel West to be his next guest.

On Monday, West will visit Wadleigh Secondary School for The Performing and Visual Arts, which is on the city’s shortlist of schools that could be closed this year, as part of a series of initiatives led by the school’s longtime librarian, Paul McIntosh.

Over the years, McIntosh has been a bright spot amid Wadleigh’s challenges, maintaining a welcoming library that is a haven for students and attracting a diverse roster of luminaries to speak. Past visitors have included Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, “American Idol” winner Ruben Studdard, and local physicians and poets. The aim of the speaker series, McIntosh said, is to expose students to future possibilities and hook them on literature.

“We’ve tried to put young men and women in contact with people of substance from a number of disciplines,” McIntosh told me. He noted that many of the students he works with are “on the precipice of bad behavior.” He hopes that by connecting them to a variety of inspiring individuals, they can be redirected.

“If they just get a little bit of support they’ll be able to see the light and aim for their higher selves,” he said.

McIntosh said he met West at several activism events and recruited him to Wadleigh during April’s “Fight Back USA!” teach-in. He said his only guidance to West was that the scholar, who will join the faculty at Union Theological Seminary in 2012, try to motivate the students before him.

West has attracted attention for his radical politics and sometimes controversial statements. But McIntosh said he’s confident West will be a good influence for Wadleigh’s students, who will be joined by students from Frederick Douglass Academy II Middle School, also in the building, and representatives of the NAACP and Harlem community.

“As provocative as he is, he seeks to bring people together and to encourage and inspire them to seek a better life in all dimensions,” McIntosh said. “I really think he’s a person of courage.”

Teachers have been prepping students for West’s visit by sharing biographical readings about him and by sharing some of his shorter essays. There will be time for students to pose their own questions after his speech and, later in the day, there will be a small meet-and-greet in the library.

The high-profile visitor comes as Wadleigh awaits word about its future: The Department of Education has said it is weighing closing both Wadleigh and FDA II because of their academic performance. Wadleigh’s middle and high schools both got D’s on their progress reports this year, down from last year, and the school has come under scrutiny in recent years for its credit recovery practices.

McIntosh said he has been participating in Wadleigh’s effort to communicate to DOE officials that the school should get another lease on life. And Anthony Klug, Wadleigh’s UFT chapter leader, told me that he thought the school had improved since he started there eight years ago. But he said the school had no shortage of challenges, from losing teachers and guidance counselors to budget cuts to clashes with the DOE over use of the building to reduced enrollment.

Next year, Harlem Success Academy’s charter middle school is set to move into the building.

When schools are phased out, their libraries often sit empty, and librarians can be the first cut when the staff starts downsizing. But McIntosh said he is not as concerned about himself as he is about librarians as a class of educators.

“Librarians really are sort of under assault,” he said.  “I don’t know if we’re considered somewhat superfluous or what, but sometimes one doesn’t see the librarian as an integral — or crucial — part of the education of young people.”

In addition to carrying out the traditional roles of a librarian and hosting 25-plus speakers each year, McIntosh runs poetry and fiction clubs during students’ free periods and after school. He has also published three anthologies of poetry collected from students and speakers. The newest collection, “The Ringing Ear,” came out this month. And he has been recognized with a slew of prizes, including the national “I Love My Librarian Award.”

McIntosh quoted West as he explained why he does what he does within his school: “You can’t lead the people if you don’t love the people. You can’t save the people if you don’t serve the people.”

“My feeling is that these young people, with all of their confusion, are worthy of being saved for the sake of this community, for the sake of this nation, for the sake of humanity,” McIntosh said. “Who’s to say how they will contribute to the language of humanity? You never know.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede