decisions decisions

Peninsula Prep Academy to stay open at least into the summer

A charter school that the city is trying to close will likely stay open well beyond the end of the school year while a judge reviews the case.

The city announced in January that it would not renew the Peninsula Preparatory Academy’s charter when it expires on June 30. But just as has happened at Williamsburg Charter High School, another charter school facing closure, parents and the school board at PPA have fought back in court. In March, PPA won a temporary restraining order, allowing the school to hold its lottery for next year and begin enrolling students. Principal Ericka Wala said today the school received 125 applications for 50 kindergarten seats and has already filled those seats.

On Thursday, Judge Diccia Pineda-Kirwan of the Queens County Supreme Court extended the restraining order indefinitely while she reviews the case. An additional motion was filed by parents who charge that their due process rights were violated by the Department of Education’s handling of the closure procedure. Advocates for Justice, the nonprofit law firm that is usually opposes charter schools in litigation, filed the motion on behalf of 98 families from the school. Pineda-Kirwan said today that she would need at least 60 days to decide the case but could take as long as 90 days, a scenario that would push the case into late August.

The decision puts the school in a thorny place as it attempts to plan for the next school year. Wala said that only two of the school’s 54 teachers have told her they won’t be returning next year, but that number is sure to grow the longer the school’s status is in limbo.

As of now, the school is also without a home for the 2012-2013 school year. After learning that PPA was headed for closure this winter, the landlord of the building where the school current operates informed Wala that he would not be renewing the lease.

“This is an issue that we’ll have to deal with as we move forward,” Wala said. The decision today, she added, “is just one of the hurdles we have to get over.”

The city announced plans to close Williamsburg Charter High School and Peninsula Prep Academy on the same day in January. But both schools have fought back in court and have so far scored small victories. On Tuesday, a judge extended a lifeline to Williamsburg Charter High School until at least next week, when lawyers on both sides hope for a final decision about the school’s fate.

A decision for Peninsula Prep, an elementary school, is less urgent. Because elementary-aged students enroll in schools based on where they live, it will be easier for the DOE to place students into nearby schools. In the event that a judge rules against Williamsburg Charter High School, the DOE will need to hold a mini lottery with a smaller pool of high schools to accept underclassmen in the the 900-student school.

Both charter schools arrived at their fate for different reasons. Williamsburg Charter High School ignored warnings by the DOE to divorce itself from its troubled founder, Eddie Calderone-Melendez. Calderone-Melendez was arrested last month for alleged financial improprieties that connected back to his handling of the network that oversaw Williamsburg Charter.

Peninsula Prep, on the other hand, was cited for failing to meet several academic outcome measures that were part of its charter agreement with the DOE, which authorized the school. But the decision to close the school was criticized because it left hundreds of parents who lived on the isolated Rockaways Peninsula with few quality district school options. Hostility to the decision played out at public hearings and in protests at Tweed.

That hostility was still apparent in the courtroom today.

PPA’s students “come from areas in the Rockaways which are disenfranchised, segregated, isolated, and ill-serviced,” Wala said. “Many of the local public schools struggle through these conditions, which perpetuate an overall lower academic performance for the Rockaways.”


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