New sheriffs in town

Students bring anti-turnaround message to PEP members

Wassem Albakka, a sophomore from Grady High School, tapes a poster of PEP member Linda Bryant to a fence near her Upper East Side office building.

When student protesters came knocking on the front door of Eduardo Martí’s office building this afternoon, the mayoral appointee to the Panel for Education Policy wasn’t there. The same was true when they tried the offices of fellow appointees Linda Bryant and Judy Bergtraum.

But the band of eight students, all from high schools the city has put up for closure, still used chants, drumming, and “wanted” posters with the panelists faces on them to leave them a message: that they should not vote to close their schools.

A City University of New York official blocked the students from entering Martí’s office on East 80th Street shortly before 3 p.m. But a receptionist listened patiently by phone as Diana Rodriguez, a senior at Grover Cleveland High School, read off a list of “crimes he is wanted for”:

“One, violation of civil rights: He approved 23 school closing affecting 10,000 students. He approved countless policies that have resulted in only 13 percent of Black and Latino students graduating ready for college,” she said. “Two, breach of the public trust: He rubber stamped all of Mayor Bloomberg’s proposals, against the will of parents, students and communities. Three, conflict of interest: He received funds from the mayor’s administration while holding public office.”

Students from Cleveland and Grady, which the city wants to close using the controversial turnaround school reform model this year, were later joined by a student and parent from Legacy High School for Integrated Studies, a small Union Square high school the PEP voted to close this winter.

The students, who were organized by the advocacy group Alliance for Quality Education, said they had two main reasons for protesting: solidarity with the schools that the PEP has already voted to close, and a desire to protect their schools from the turnaround, which would call for the firing of half the schools’ staff and replacing its name. The PEP, which has never rejected a city proposal, will vote on the turnaround proposals on April 26.

Students from William E. Grady Career and Technical Education High School taped the wanted posters–which entreated viewers to call Martí at his office number and say, “you are wanted for crimes against New York City students”—to street poles around the block while two Cleveland students pounded on makeshift bucket-drums.

“I’ve had two years to get comfortable with the teachers,” Wassem Albakka, a sophomore from Grady, told me. “Walking up and down the hallway is going to be a little awkward, seeing teachers we don’t know.”

Students from Grover Cleveland High School bang bucket drums with cooking utensils to share their concerns about Panel for Educational Policy member Eduardo Martí with coworkers outside his East 80th Street offices.

Albakka said he is especially worried about whether the city will fire his football coach, who spends free periods reviewing games with students.

“Grady is like a family,” Mohannad Ikhma, also a sophomore, added. “Alumni come back here to visit. If they take the name away, where are they going to come back to?”

Ikhma also said he expected new teachers would have a difficult time commanding respect from the students, many of whom have rallied in opposition to the turnaround plan at the school in the past month.

Several Upper East Side residents passing by stopped to read the posters and ask the students what they were protesting.

“I don’t have any children in school,” one said. “But why does the mayor want to close the schools?”

At Bryant’s office two blocks north, an employee of Inwood House, the pregnancy-prevention program she runs, opened the building’s front door a crack to tell the students that Bryant was gone for the day, too. Rodriguez offered the woman a “wanted” poster with Bryant’s face on it, and she responded, “How cute,” before shutting the door.

The students also struck out at Bergraum’s office in Midtown West. They were told it was closing for the day when they arrived close to 5 p.m, so they resumed chanting outside the high-rise.

Election Forum

Tennesseans are about to get their first good look at candidates for governor on education

PHOTO: TN.gov
Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Tennesseans will elect their next governor in November.

For almost 16 years, two Tennessee governors from two different political parties have worked off mostly the same playbook when it comes to K-12 education.

This year, voters will choose a new governor who will determine if that playbook stays intact — or takes a different direction from the administrations of Bill Haslam, a Republican leaving office next January, and Phil Bredesen, the Democrat who preceded him.

Voters will get to hear from all but one of the major candidates Tuesday evening during the first gubernatorial forum televised statewide. Organizers say the spotlight on education is fitting since, based on one poll, it’s considered one of the top three issues facing Tennessee’s next governor. Both K-12 and higher education are on the table.

Candidates participating are:

  • Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet and former Tennessee state senator;
  • Randy Boyd, a Republican from Knoxville and former commissioner of Economic and Community Development and a Republican from Knoxville;
  • Karl Dean, a Democrat and former mayor of Nashville;
  • Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley and minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Rep. Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville and speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County

The seventh major candidate, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican from Gallatin, is in the midst of a congressional session in Washington, D.C.

The next governor will help decide whether Tennessee will stay the course under its massive overhaul of K-12 education initiated under Bredesen’s watch. The work was jump-started by the state’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, for which Tennessee agreed to adopt the Common Core academic standards for math and English; incorporate students’ scores from standardized tests in annual teacher evaluations; and establish a state-run turnaround district to intervene in low-performing schools at an unprecedented level.

Tennessee has since enjoyed steady student growth and watched its national rankings rise, but the transition hasn’t been pain-free. Pushback on its heavy-handed turnaround district led leaders to widen school improvement strategies. They also ordered new academic standards due to political backlash over the Common Core (though the revised standards are still basically grounded in Common Core).

A major issue now is whether the next governor and legislature will retain Tennessee’s across-the-board system of accountability for students, teachers, schools and districts. Snafus and outright failures with TNReady, the new standardized test that serves as the lynchpin, have prompted some calls to make the assessment just a diagnostic tool or scrap it altogether. Haslam and his leadership team have stood firm.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat recently. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an advocacy group that works closely with Tennessee’s Department of Education, is a co-host of Tuesday’s forum. Known as SCORE, the group has sought to shape the election-year conversation with priorities that include teacher quality, improving literacy, and developing school leaders — all outgrowths of learnings during Tennessee’s Race to the Top era.

SCORE President David Mansouri said the goal is to maintain the momentum of historic gains in student achievement from the last decade. “The next administration’s education policy decisions will be crucial in determining whether Tennessee students continue to progress faster than students in other states and whether they graduate ready for postsecondary success,” he said Monday.

The one-hour forum will delve into a range of issues. College and career readiness, education equity, and school funding will be among the topics broached before each candidate is allowed a one-minute closing statement, according to David Plazas, a Tennessean editor who will help moderate the discussion.

“It will be really exciting,” Plazas promised. “We’re hoping the candidates are prepared to talk substantively on the issues and to avoid slogans.”

The event begins at 7 p.m. CT at Nashville’s Belmont University. Along with SCORE, it’s being co-hosted by USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. You can livestream the event here and learn more about attending or watching here.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

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