Principal, King frame tensions over school choice changes

A back-and-forth between State Education Commissioner John King and a Brooklyn high school principal today provided a window into the tensions at play when high-needs students are placed in city schools — at a moment when additional shifts in enrollment policies may be imminent.

As King toured the High School for Public Service, principal Sean Rice outlined his worries about serving 35 special education students, up from “almost none” two years ago, in a school with about 440 students. Five or six have been added to his rolls in just the past week, he said.

Commissioner John King spoke with principal Sean Rice, center, about special needs students at his school.

“It is a major concern,” Rice said. “It’s going to be challenging for us this year, because we have a teaching staff that has not had extensive experience with students with disabilities.”

But Rice’s situation is rare for how few special education students he has, since some high schools, like William E. Grady High, have more than 20 percent special education students. Figures like that have created a schism between the city and the state for years, as King has criticized the city’s school choice policies for allowing some schools to become overloaded with needy students.

“I think this is the balance, though, between our concern—which we’ve long expressed—of students being concentrated in isolated buildings, and attempts by the city, which I think is the right direction, to try and avoid those overconcentrations of students,” King said to Rice during a discussion with Chancellor Merryl Tisch and other state education officials.

King has pushed the city to more equitably distribute those students for years, starting when he prompted the city to address the issue in order to receive federal funds for school ‘turnaround’ efforts. Chancellor Walcott said he would take steps to change enrollment practices in a 2012 letter.

While those commitments were technically rendered meaningless when the city was unable to secure School Improvement Grants, the city has still taken steps to distribute students more evenly. In the last two years, the city has reduced the number of students admitted “over-the-counter,” or just before or during the regular school year, who are assigned to low-achieving schools. The city announced earlier this year that nearly 1,300 students would be placed in 71 selective high schools for the 2013-14 school year without going through those schools’ specific admissions processes.

DOE officials said that those assignments, and the other recent changes to enrollment policy, didn’t affect Public Service, and added that there have been no changes in enrollment policy for special education students in recent months.

But a $2.6 million contract being voted on next week by the Panel for Educational Policy is an indication that more changes may be on the way. The contract is with Vanguard Direct, the company that built the city’s online Student Enrollment System, for “data management system changes” to “provide fair and equitable student enrollment opportunities.” Department officials would not comment on that contract proposal.

King said Wednesday that he expects to see more movement in enrollment procedures from the city in the months ahead, especially in the high school admissions process. The issue remains on a personal priority list, he added, and that he hopes a broader look at student assignment policies will be a priority of the next mayor.

Today, Rice signaled that additional city involvement in enrollment decisions would be difficult for some principals, no matter the intentions.

“I think it’s time that schools that have been protected from special-needs populations are getting their share of students with disabilities to educate,” Rice said. His fear is “just growing too quickly in a school that’s never had the experience.”

King pushed back, though, saying he understood Rice’s concerns but the only way to more evenly distribute high-needs students is to make sure schools serving few end up with higher numbers. “You’re right, you don’t want to overwhelm any single school. But this new influx of students here is reflection of a policy change we actually have advocated for, which is to not concentrate the students,” King said.

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

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”