All together now

Students will take leading role at new District 13 middle school

A student in Darby Masland's sixth grade class uses an iPad to look up the definition of illustrious for her classmates during unison reading. Unison reading is a core of the method that will inform a new Clinton Hill middle school.

In September, sixth graders at a new middle school in Clinton Hill will regularly stand at the front of the class to share a vocabulary word, or how to solve a math problem. And feedback from fellow students will be valued as much as feedback from their teachers.

In more than a dozen city schools, teachers are taking a literal backseat in their classroom as they adopt a student-driven teaching method called Learning Cultures. But Urban Assembly Unison School is the first to be built from bottom up around the method.

Unlike some of the schools that use Learning Cultures to help immigrant students learn English, Unison probably won’t be serving a large population of English language learners. District 13, where the school will open, has relatively few ELLs.

But Learning Cultures is flexible enough to challenge and support any students, said Jennifer Ostrow, the co-founder and principal of the school. She said she heavily recruited ELLs from outside the district, but students who live in District 13, which has had a dearth of high-quality middle schools, got priority for admission. (The school is still accepting applicants, Ostrow said.)

“I am really excited to create what I think will be an excellent middle school and hope will be a valuable contribution to our community,” Ostrow said.

Learning Cultures is grounded in the idea that students learn most from social practices. So at the Unison School, classroom time will be structured around interactions between students — such as unison reading, in which students spend 20 minutes reading in sync, stopping when one stumbles. Students will set specific goals for themselves, often informed by state standards. And teachers will meet with one or two students every class period for 20 minute one-on-one sessions.

Ostrow began to help develop the school as director of new school development for Urban Assembly, a network that operates about 20 city schools. If all had gone as planned, she would have moved onto another project by now.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about how great the school was going to be, and how exciting it could be and eventually decided to just jump back in with both feet and to be the school’s proposed principal of myself,” Ostrow said. Before her work in the network’s central office, she was assistant principal at another Urban Assembly school, the Harbor School.

The Learning Cultures method caught the attention of Urban Assembly and district schools across the city after P.S. 126, which piloted the program, saw leaps in its standardized test scores. The Department of Education has also taken note: Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky gave the opening address at a Learning Cultures symposium last month, making a rare joint appearance with UFT president Michael Mulgrew.

The department is watching the model’s results closely, according to Josh Thomases, a top deputy in charge of instruction.

Cynthia McCallister, a New York University professor who engineered the method and related curriculum in the 1990s, said the mounting emphasis on standardized testing has driven Learning Cultures’ popularity. The method calls for teachers to discuss standards explicitly and to help students use the standards to articulate their personal learning goals. That means students at Learning Cultures schools are likely to be more aware of language of standards than they might be at other schools — something McCallister said teachers and principals find increasingly attractive as the Common Core takes hold and resets expectations for student learning.

“In a lot of ways the extra pressure or emphasis on standardized tests has created a context where, with a lot of people, there’s more willingness to consider this kind of model,” McCallister said.

But it wasn’t just test competency that attracted Ostrow to the method, although she said that was part of her motivation. When she toured P.S. 126 she was struck by the consistency in instruction from class to class. And she liked that students could talk to her about what they were doing, and why they were doing it.

One advantage Ostrow has over principals who have implemented the program in established schools is that she doesn’t have to win teachers over. Teachers and principals at schools that have adopted Learning Cultures in the past say it can be hard to convince teachers that inverting the traditional student-teacher dynamic is a good thing.

Darby Masland is a sixth grade teacher at the Urban Assembly Institute of Math and Science for Young Women, which began to implement Learning Cultures in its middle school this year. Masland is now one of Learning Culture’s biggest proponents, and is helping to train Ostrow’s teachers this summer. But initially, the method “freaked [her] out,” she said.

“You’re asking yourself, ‘How are the students staying quiet? Why aren’t they throwing desks at each other when you turn your back?’” she said.

But the team of six teachers Ostrow selected from more than 400 applicants are all excited about the method, Ostrow said.

The are prepared to not only take on a new classroom dynamic, but to adapt to new expectations from their principal. Instead of submitting lesson plans to Ostrow, as they would in another school, Unison teachers will hand in rubrics, filled out by their colleagues and themselves, that show how often they met with students and what they talked about.

The rubrics induce the most tension of any component of Learning Cultures, said Kerry Decker, who has implemented Learning Cultures at two schools, first as principal of P.S. 126 in New York, and then at a school in Wisconsin.

“When you say to a teacher, ‘Look, you’re not satisfactory, you need improvement, based on my observation of these rubrics,’ they really feel — it’s a shift in mindset to them, so at first it’s a real shock,” Decker said.

But Decker says most of her teachers have come to see how valuable of a professional management tool the rubrics can be.

Ostrow, who will also teach at Unison, said she looks forward to the feedback from students and teachers. And she wants to set an example of lifelong learning for the sixth graders.

“We want students to understand intelligence is incremental, and error is an opportunity for learning,” she said.

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