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.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

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.