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Report urges next chancellor to focus on college preparation

The city’s next schools chancellor will soon have to determine his or her ultimate goal: for every student to graduate from high school? To be “college or career ready”? To graduate from college?

report released yesterday illustrates just how complicated those last two can be, as only a fraction of those who graduate from city high schools actually enter college and earn a diploma. Researchers embedded in 14 high-needs middle and high schools found a litany of roadblocks that originate before students graduate, from the limited number of advanced college-preparatory courses available to a lack of trained counselors to help students through necessary paperwork.

“What happens to our students in New York City, particularly in low-end communities, is they don’t have all of the traditional tools that middle class and upper class families do in terms of academic and social supports to actually make it through college,” said researcher Kim Nauer of the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs. “As more and more students have been told that they can, and should, attend college, too many of them get to college and just fall off a cliff.”

A lot of the report’s content was previewed in a panel discussion held last June. But after four years of firsthand observation, the center is recommending an action plan for the next administration.

“The next chancellor is going to have a lot of tough financial decisions to make,” Nauer said. “If college readiness is genuinely part of the goal, they’re going to have to think about how to support students in school for this process.” Some of their recommendations:

Hold schools more accountable for preparing students for college: The researchers credit the Bloomberg administration with beginning to hold schools accountable for what happens to their students after they leave, through the “college and career readiness” grade now included in school progress reports and Where Are They Now reports for principals. But even though the college-going population has jumped, many students aren’t academically ready to take—or their schools do not offer—classes that prepare them to do college work.

A Center for New York City Affairs analysis of 2011–12 Progress Report data revealed that only 28 of 342 high schools analyzed had students taking Regents exams for Algebra 2, Chemistry and Physics. Most schools offered only one or two of these courses for possible advanced Regents credit in that year—and 46 schools appeared to offer none. That said, most high schools offer at least a few advanced or college-level courses. And taking even just one course can improve the probability of success in college.

Still, Progress Reports are set up to emphasize measures that show whether students pass Regents exams that determine graduation. One teacher phrased it this way: “Too much energy is spent on short-term passing—and not enough energy on long-term college planning.”

While no one wants to see the graduation rates erode, it is important that the department move toward a more balanced set of incentives. A good first step will be to increase the value of the Progress Report’s College and Career Readiness score, which measures important things like college matriculation and the number of students with access to college prep courses.

Offer more trained help for students: The study’s analysis of data from the teacher’s union showed a 1 to 316 ratio of students to licensed guidance counselors from kindergarten to grade 12 in city schools, excluding charters. There are no standards for how many guidance counselors schools need, or a direct budget line for them.

The researchers acknowledge that there are a few schools of thought on who can best provide college guidance—the city and many principals say outside providers and teachers can do the job well. Still, the report notes significant gaps in the counseling process for many students, and recommends either a full-time trained college counselor or outside help with enough resources to really reach students.

Center researchers also observed that the College Ready Communities schools were usually thinly staffed and heavily reliant on outside nonprofit help. Over the three years we observed these schools, we saw several occasions where applications of an entire senior class were put at risk when a guidance counselor left on maternity leave or when there was a major change in school leadership. Even though nonprofit partners and other school staff stepped into the breach, there was a remarkable degree of instability in college guidance in many of these schools.

The department’s Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky has said that hiring full-time college counselors for every school would be impossible financially, though.

Support the nonprofits that are filling those gaps: At Flushing High School, a single college counselor was available for more than 3,000 students. The focus there has been on getting as many students over the bar to graduate, especially since the Bloomberg administration has tried to close the school for low performance. The organization Asian Americans for Equality helps some students fill out financial aid forms and search for scholarships, support that the school’s counselor, Maria Berber, has said is vital:

“I’m under the impression that AAFE will stay, if they didn’t, it would be a nightmare, I really, really hope they stay, because it will be at least some continuity for these kids and a face that’s familiar.”

A revealing note: For nonprofit organizations that do provide students with counseling help, there are difficult and often uncomfortable decisions to be made about how to allocate limited resources.

“If a student is a junior in high school with a GPA of 70 and has never written a research report, there are real ethical questions about exactly what colleges he should go to or if he will even get into one,” a former Cypress Hills Local Development Cooperation staffer. “Is it really fair to send this student to college if he may not be able to even pass out of remediation?”

Thus organizations face a Hobson’s choice: Try to help students catch up academically or give up on college and help them find a different post-secondary pathway.

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