changing of the guard

After chair steps down, charter school's board pledges changes

The standing-room only audience at New York French American Charter School's meeting for the board of trustees and parents.

Parents at a Harlem charter school that’s on probation got what they wanted Tuesday night: The chair of their board resigned.

The resignation took place just minutes into a meeting of the Board of Trustees for New York French American Charter School, the year-old the city put on probation last week because of “serious violations” of its charter and state law. It drew cheers from the standing-room only audience.

Many of the roughly 50 parents who packed a small classroom on the school’s second floor said they had never been to a board meeting before but were anxious about how the board would resolve the school’s administrative woes. Those woes included a lack of communication among board members, parents, and school staff.

Now, parents say they expect communications to improve after the board elected Fabrice Rouah, a financial analyst, to be acting chair.

“He looks at everything with a fresh pair of eyes,” said Claire Zaglauer, who was recently elected president of the school’s brand-new parent-teacher organization. Zaglauer said the board appears poised to add multiple new members in the coming weeks.

Celestin’s resignation “sent a strong signal that the board is willing to take responsibility for the current crisis,” Rouah said in a statement today. “The board’s commitment to the school is stronger than ever, as is our resolve to get the probation lifted.”

During the meeting itself, the board assured parents that some of the problems identified by the DOE had been fixed already and said other resolutions were on the way but would take more time. Lingering problems, they said, include the lack of a permanent principal, trouble securing a long-term home for the school, security breaches, and a lack of cleanliness in the building. Sybil Swain, the school’s director of operations, said the school is also struggling to find a health insurance plan for its staff.

“We’re acting very quickly to get some of these things to where they should have been in the first place,” she said.

Much of the meeting focused on fact that the school does not have an accurate account of its finances, a citation in the probation report that Swain and other board members acknowledged. The board members explained that the accounting firm they had hired had not delivered required services and would be replaced.

Several parents questioned how the school could tackle its problems and pay for new staff members and security services if it doesn’t have a clear picture of how much money it has. But board members assured them that the school would not run out of money.

Still, over the long term, NYFACS will also have to draw new families in to ensure there are sufficient funds, said Ellis Scope, another board member who is also the prin­ci­pal of a public high school for stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties. This year, the school projected full enrollment when applying for its budget from the DOE, but its actual enrollment has fallen significantly short of that target. Making matters worse, Scope said, the school lost most attendance records from between February and June.

DOE officials “were extremely concerned about our ability to account for the number of students,” she said. “They’re saying, if you can’t even do that, then how can you run the school?”

The board chair who resigned, Johnny Celestin, said in an interview after the meeting that he stepped down to appease families who accused him of failing to perform his duties, which included reporting information to the DOE.

“We need for the school to heal,” he said, “and as leader of the school I take full responsibility for where we are.”

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