final round

Progress reports show stability as mayor-elect plans changes

photo (6)Officials released what could be the city’s final round of school grades today, emphasizing stability even as major changes are likely imminent.

The Department of Education and City Hall will soon be full of new officials, and last year was chaotic for different reasons—Superstorm Sandy and the first round of the state’s new, tougher Common Core-aligned exams. That meant today’s release was marked by little fanfare and lowered stakes.

The A to F grades and accompanying school progress reports are based mostly on calculations of student test scores, and they have become a signature of Mayor Bloomberg’s focus on school accountability since the city began giving them out in 2007. But they may not stick around at all, as mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has promised to eliminate those grades and pause the school-closure process.

So the 45 schools that received Fs and 102 that received Ds this year will not be considered for closure this year, as has become the norm.

The overall grade distribution across schools—fixed for elementary and middle schools, but not for high schools—remained fairly steady, despite across-the-board score decreases following the introduction of new state tests. Overall, 27 percent of the 1,624 schools receiving grades earned As, 36 percent earned Bs, 28 percent Cs, 6 percent Ds, and 3 percent Fs.

Some of this year’s scores also felt the impact of Superstorm Sandy, which devastated a number of city schools. Eleven hard-hit schools that would have received low grades had those grades withheld, though they did receive overall progress reports.

The results were good for new unscreened high schools, which continued to outperform high schools opened before 2002. Sixty-seven percent of the new schools earned an A or B, compared to 46 percent of the older schools. For charter schools, the results were also positive, with 69 percent earning an A or B.

De Blasio has called those letter grades too simplistic, though he hasn’t yet said what he would replace them with or whether schools would still be assessed by the complex algorithms that go into the grades.

Bloomberg rebuffed de Blasio’s assessment of the school grades at another event on Wednesday, saying that they made it easier for parents to understand school quality. “Getting it down to something that they can use is not making it too simplistic; quite the contrary, it is making it useful,” Bloomberg said.

But Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky, who presented the results on Wednesday, said he sees middle ground. “I hope that, there’s a sense that when we look at these questions, it’s not a dichotomy,” he said. “You don’t have to either do progress reports or no progress reports, you don’t have to either do no accountability or yes accountability. You can find ways to address whatever concerns are out there and build them into the system in a smart and thoughtful way.”

This year, adjustments included a new metric for college and career-readiness, after the department heard complaints from teachers and principals that their students were doing well in college despite not having exam scores that met the city’s college-readiness threshold.

They were right. Though only 25 percent of the class of 2011 was deemed college-ready by their state scores, an additional 23 percent of students who graduated then are still in college after three semesters, and high schools are now receiving credit for preparing those students as well.

The city also emphasized the success of its efforts to work with schools that received Ds or Fs in recent years but that the city decided not to close. Of the 76 schools with one of those plans last year, 76 percent improved at least one letter grade this year. Eleven percent improved three or more grade levels.

That may be a result of a suggestion in a recent report on school networks. “Although it is not widely discussed (either by the DOE or its critics), the last few years have seen the DOE take steps to test out more assertive direct support models for struggling schools,” that report said.

The city will release a list of schools eligible for “early intervention” because of low performance on Thursday.

And while Polakow-Suransky said it wasn’t his place to advocate for the specific continuation of the school grades, Bloomberg was happy to do just that.

“I would certainly urge my successor to keep going,” the mayor said.

Patrick Wall contributed reporting. 

Correction: This story previously misstated the number of schools that received Ds. That figure is 102, not 202.

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