first steps

Day care center moved amid flurry of early childhood changes

Parents and Sunset Park residents are up in arms over a decision by a local church to evict a popular day care center and replace it with a higher-paying tenant: the Department of Education.

A lease dispute between St. Michael’s Church and Sunset Park Early Childhood Development Center surfaced last summer, when the diocese landlord raised the rent to levels the day care center couldn’t afford.

That lease officially ended on Friday and the center was shut down until late January, when the 400-seat Head Start program will reopen in another church nearby, Our Lady of Perpetual Help. But the new facility needs renovations and does not have enough room for dozens of children with special needs.

Families of those children say they still don’t know where their children will attend school next month.

“That’s part of the issue,” said Maritza Arrastia, an Sunset Park organizer who is joining with parents and other community members today to rally in front of St. Michael’s. “It’s hard to get any information that’s clear.”

The DOE will start renovating St. Michael’s in January — months after a $1.2 million foundation-funded revamp meant for the day care program — and aims to open a new DOE school in the space in 2014, according to a department spokesman.

The relocation comes amid surge of policy initiatives that are threatening to reshape the state of early childhood education in the city.

City-funded child care centers, including more than 250 Head Start programs, are in the process of defending their value to the city. They must reapply for funding as part of an initiative called EarlyLearn, which is meant to boost the quality of early childhood offerings but has made operators of longstanding programs anxious about their futures.

EarlyLearn itself is newly in jeopardy. That’s because the city’s main provider of early childhood programs, the Administration for Children’s Services, was not on the list of “high quality” Head Start providers that the Obama Administration released this week. That means the city could lose out on $190 million in federal early childhood funding and remove Head Start from the portfolio of programs EarlyLearn is meant to assess.

From a report by Sarah Garland of the Hechinger Report for GothamSchools:

The potential loss of funding could disrupt a new initiative, EarlyLearn NYC, which is meant to streamline funding and improve the quality of the city’s early education programs. This fall, the city required all of its childcare programs, including the Head Start centers it oversees, to reapply for funding. But now that the city itself must reapply for its federal grant, “the implications could be pretty dramatic,” said Nancy Wackstein, executive director of United Neighborhood Houses of New York, a multi-service agency based in the city.

“If they don’t control the allocation of Head Start funds, then that would mean that they could not implement the EarlyLearn model,” she said.

Roadblocks to EarlyLearn’s implementation would be welcome news to some critics of EarlyLearn, including most members of the City Council, who say the initiative would likely shrink the city’s child care system, eliminate jobs, and disproportionately burden some centers that serve poor students.

Next week, the union that represents day care workers is planning to file suit to stop EarlyLearn’s rollout. According to a press release we received today, the union, DC 1707, will argue that EarlyLearn violates federal law.

Adding to the Sunset Park controversy is the fact that St. Michael’s recently finished renovations paid for by a $1.2 million Robin Hood grant that was intended for the Sunset Park Early Childhood Development Center. A spokeswoman for Catholic Charities said St. Michael’s was paying for a majority of the renovation fees that will be needed at their new facility.

“I don’t want to make it seem like they gave all the money back, but it works out that a bunch of the new renovations was paid for by St. Michael’s,” said Lucy Garrido-Mota.

Community members say it’s another example where they were not consulted about a public education decision.

“What clearly is happening, unfortunately, is a lack of communication with the community,” said Eddie Rodriguez, a Sunset Park resident and a District 15 Community Education Council member.

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