the long view

With HS graduation rate up, Bloomberg touts long-term gains

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, accompanied by Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott, said the city's high-school graduation rate reached a new high in 2013.

In an effort to burnish his education legacy before leaving office, Mayor Bloomberg took the unusual step Wednesday of announcing the city’s 2013 high-school graduation rate – which he said rose to a record high of 66 percent – a full six months before the state officially releases those figures.

The rate touted by the mayor reflects students who graduated this August after four years. As usual, the rate among students who graduated by June was lower, at 61.3 percent – though that rate still represents a 32 percent increase since 2005.

The latest August graduation rate is 1.3 percentage points higher than in 2012, when the rate declined for the first time under Bloomberg. The mayor said 2013’s preliminary graduation rate – which state officials said they verified – is the city’s highest since it adopted its current calculation method in 2005.

According to the city’s figures, black and Hispanic students’ graduation rates both climbed since last year, though each group still lags roughly 20 percentage points behind the rates of white and Asian students. Students with disabilities saw their graduation rate rise 7 points over last year’s, while the rate for English language learners slipped by nearly 2 points.

While acknowledging the lingering gaps between student groups, Bloomberg said that since he took office in 2001 fewer students across the board are dropping out of high school and more are graduating prepared for college, even as diploma standards have become more demanding.

He attributed these gains to his get-tough education policies, including closing low-performing schools and opening new small ones, which he said has made New York’s school system a national model.

“What is clear is that for the 12 years we’ve been doing this, the results are – by any national standards – outstanding,” Bloomberg said. “We really have become the poster child.”

The city said that the four-year high school graduation rate is higher than in 2005, while the dropout rate is lower.
The city said that the four-year high school graduation rate is higher than in 2005, while the dropout rate is lower.

With less than a month left before Bloomberg hands over his post to Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, who has promised to reverse many of this administration’s signature school policies, Bloomberg has been vigorously defending those policies.

On Tuesday, he announced that many more students took Advanced Placement exams and the SAT than when he took office.

On Wednesday, when asked why he decided to reveal the city’s preliminary graduation rates half a year before the state releases the official figures next June, Bloomberg replied, “We’re not going to be here” at that time, adding that the public has a right to know now “what has been accomplished and what has not been accomplished.”

At a separate press conference Wednesday, de Blasio said he thought it was appropriate for the current mayor to announce the graduation results before leaving office.

“Clearly, the work done by the Bloomberg administration – the good, the bad, the in-between – that’s all on their account and that’s fair and that’s right,” he said.

In the last few years, both the city and state have made it more challenging to earn a diploma.

Students must now score a 65 out of 100 on all five Regents exams, since the so-called local diploma that allowed a score of 55 on some tests has been eliminated for most students. And students cannot hastily earn last-minute course credits, since a process that allowed them to do so online has been restricted.

With those tougher standards in place last year, the city’s June graduation rate fell half a point, to 60.4. But this year, the rate is up nearly a point from last year, which city officials said Wednesday confirmed their prediction that students would adapt and rise to meet the higher standards.

Still, the graduation rate could soon take another hit when the Regents exams are overhauled in the coming years to assess the more demanding Common Core standards. When the grade 3-8 state tests were tied to those standards this year, scores plunged, with less than a third of students passing the English and math exams.

But Bloomberg said he did not expect the graduation rate to fall for that reason, citing states that had adopted tougher standards and eventually saw learning gains.

“When you raise the standards,” he said, “you have to teach harder, you have to work harder.”

Geoff Decker contributed reporting.

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

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