the data scene

A Queens school finds opportunity in Google's education apps

Principals want to chart school expenditures? There’s a Google App for that. Teachers want to collaborate on curriculum? Students want to vote on the colors of their cap and gown? There are Google Apps for that, too.

ACTVF juniors shooting their own Alfred Hitchcock films after school on Tuesday

The Academy for Careers in Television and Film is making use of all of them. Founding principal Mark Dunetz has Google-fied the school, using Google Apps for Education to create shared, streamlined systems that aggregate information and smooth operations.

When Dunetz started ACTVF in 2008, he said he faced a challenge shared by most non-selective high schools: “You accept in a range of students based on their interest in the program, who might or might not have had success in school.”

His solution to guarantee their success was to implement a slew of organizational systems to make the school “responsive and efficient” to students’ needs. The first class of students will graduate this year, and Dunetz projects a graduation rate over 90 percent – a rarity for a non-selective school.

“It would be inconceivable to do the work we’re doing, as successfully as we’re doing it, without the systems that we have in place,” he said when I visited the school last week.

The starting point for ACTVF was the free suite of Google Apps for Education, which includes Google Mail, Google Docs, Google Calendar, and Google Sites. Dunetz leaned on the toolkit to create a shared document for staff to track parent outreach. But then the possibilities exploded.

“Once you get into it, you know what’s possible,” Dunetz said. “You start to really see everywhere the ways you’re wasting time doing things in an inefficient matter.”

Now, administrators, teachers, and students — who have different levels of access to the tools — use it for a large chunk of their managing, teaching, and learning.

New York State has an agreement with Google that allows teachers to get special Apps for Education training. But for the most part, enterprising educators such as Dunetz find ways to stretch the usages of the free suite on their own. Only when he can’t wrangle the system to match the school’s needs does Dunetz reach out to Google’s tech help.

“Every day I learn of a new way a teacher is using a tool in a way I didn’t think of,” said Jaime Casap, the Senior “Education Evangelist” on the Google Apps for Education team. He said he has seen teachers using Google Forms to replace paper reading logs and he’s seen them using Google Docs to chart student behavior from one class to the next.

“We love problem-solving,” he said, adding that Google’s engineers are responsive to the requests they receive and added 175 new features in 2011 alone. Casap sees the most promise for development in the Google Apps Marketplace, where third-party developers will be able to bring their expertise to the table.

With a few clicks, Dunetz can pull up detailed data about a single student or create a variety of charts and graphs to get sweeping, generalized views of his school: Pie charts of school spending, bar graphs of student lateness, line graphs tracking the frequency of teacher observations.

Teachers can also see more detailed trends, in shared Google Docs that track attendance, lateness, and grades. And Google Calendar makes scheduling and programming transparent and allows teachers to share materials. For example, the advisory curriculum is layered onto a shared calendar so when advisors select a date, they can immediately download all of the documents they’ll need to carry out the day’s lesson.

The apps also offer extra academic and emotional support for students. When a student is removed from class, the faculty member he reports to enters a note into a form that automatically sends an alert email to that student’s advisor and to the school social worker.

After school last week, Global Studies teacher Joel Kirkhart tutored a group of students for the Regents exam by having them revise essays on Google Docs. Kirkhart said he is still getting used to responding to student work directly on Google Docs but is finding that the suite makes it easier for him to track the revision process, communicate with colleagues, and keep tabs on students.

But he said having a constantly updated compendium of student and school data could be overwhelming sometimes.

“The volume of information that you get, the data that you have per kid, the trackable information — it allows you a huge amount of insight,” he said. But he added, “But are there enough hours in the day?”

Abraham Rodriguez, a junior, said that students make use of their school Gmail accounts to communicate with teachers and classmates and to keep on top of their grades. Sstudents receive an automated email each time their teachers update their virtual grade books.

Rodriguez said without the cloud, “people would start to fall back on their classwork; they wouldn’t know how to catch up in classes.”

Dunetz said that he had expected the students to feel oppressed by the system, given that teachers and administrators were collecting so much information on them. However, he’s noticed that most students, like Rodriguez, appreciate the structure.

“It creates this sense for the students that they’re known in really profound ways by the people working with them and supporting them,” he said.

But Dunetz cautioned that making use of Google’s Apps for Education isn’t a quick fix for a school with communication problems. In fact, he said, the apps are only as efficient as their users know how to make them.

“There is nothing wholesale to share,” Dunetz said. “What we have here is a set of tools that are extremely flexible — and free —that we are utilizing in creative ways.”

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

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