case closed

Charter high school wins courtroom battle to remain open

 A nine-month effort by the Department of Education to shutter a troubled charter school ended today when a judge ruled in favor of keeping it open.

The decision this morning came hours before the school, Williamsburg Charter High School, is scheduled to host its graduation ceremony, where 118 students will receive their diplomas. It will also mean that the nearly 900 students who remain at the school will not need to find a new one next fall. About 20 students left in recent months because of the uncertainty that loomed from the court case.

“It’s been a great day,” said Joseph Cardarelli, a director at the school. “There were a lot of anxious parents, but it seems like a lot of  people stayed in there until the end.”

Kings County Supreme Court Judge Ellen Spodek wrote in her decision today that the process that the DOE’s charter school office followed to revoke the the school’s charter was “riddled with inconsistencies and lacks a certain level of transparency.”

Williamsburg Charter was placed on probation last September and given an ultimatum to sever ties with its founder, Eddie Calderone-Melendez, and the network he operated, or face closure. Calderone-Melendez had been under investigation for tax fraud since last spring and was indicted in April.

The charter school office ruled that the school did not move fast enough to divorce itself from Calderone-Melendez and moved to revoke its charter in January. The school fought back in court and in the streets. It hired a lawyer from Syracuse to lead the case and organized protests in front of DOE headquarters. The school won an early court victory to hold its annual enrollment lottery for incoming ninth graders while the larger case was being decided.

Spodek said that charter school office, which was the school’s authorizer, had plenty of opportunities to warn the school about its problems, but repeatedly failed to do so. The DOE renewed the school’s charter in 2009 for a five-year term, despite the fact that many of the financial and governance problems that existed with the school took prior to then.

And after the city conducted its annual site visit to the school in May 2011, Spodek wrote in her decision that the subsequent “report did not stress a sense of urgency, nor did it establish actual deadlines for task completion in which WCHS could be held accountable.”

City attorney Andrew Rauchberg, who handled the case for the Department of Education, said he disagreed with the decision and planned to pursue an appeal.

Williamsburg Charter school encountered financial problems when it moved into a $30 million building but struggled to uphold its 1,000-student enrollment targets. The DOE also found the school to have “incredible cash flow problems,” in part because of its relationship with the Believe Network, which received $2 million in management fees. The school is now $5 million in debt and the DOE concluded that it had “no credible financial plan,” according to court papers.

Spodek’s decision also establishes the importance of public access during the charter revocation process. A March hearing that the DOE “intended to be public, yet a number of parents and [students] state that they were told by the DOE that they would not be able to attend the hearing.”

Spodek said that a key provision of charter law was that the public be given “appropriate notification” at each significant stage of the chartering process.

Despite the victory, Williamsburg Charter faces other hurdles. The school is hoping to enroll 300 students next year, but has filled just 110 of those seats so far, according to Patrick Kern, director of recruitment at the Believe Network.

Kern said he expected to join Williamsburg Charter next month to help the school increase those numbers.

”There has been no formal request to have Kern work for Williamsburg,” said Williamsburg’s lawyer Ellen Kimatian Eagen.

“We have a strong plan for enrollment to get our numbers up,” Cardarelli said. “We have kids who have already transferred but now they want to come back. I’m confident that we can get our enrollment to where it needs to be.”

WCHS Court Decision 6-28-12

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