parting words

Bloomberg lauds small schools on his final visit as mayor

Mayor Bloomberg spoke to students at Bard High School Early College Queens on his last school day as mayor.
Mayor Bloomberg spoke to students at Bard High School Early College Queens on his last school day as mayor.

On the last school day of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 12 years in office, an educator gave him an unexpected gift.

Bloomberg was speaking to students at Bard High School Early College Queens, a small selective school with a 96-percent graduation rate where students leave with associates’ degrees. He told them that “small, innovative schools like Bard” had helped drive up graduation rates across the city.

“You are some of the luckiest kids in the world,” Bloomberg said.

As he was leaving, Principal Valeri Thomson shook his hand.

“I want to thank you for the small-school movement,” she told the departing mayor in an unprompted endorsement of one of his signature education policies.

Then she scurried off to teach a class on the biology of non-infectious diseases, and he continued on his five-borough valedictory tour.

The more than 200 new small schools the administration created — part of a national small-school movement — reflected its commitment to school choice and competition. That approach had plenty of critics, not least because its flipside was the closure of many large high schools.

Repeated studies have found that the city’s small schools give students a better chance of graduating — a point that Chancellor Dennis Walcott, who accompanied the mayor to Bard, touted Friday.

“A lot of great small schools came into existence under this administration and they’re flourishing and students are getting a great education,” he said.

The most recent study, by the independent research group MDRC, found that students who were randomly chosen to attend one of the city’s nonselective small high schools graduated in four years 70.4 percent of the time, compared to 60.9 percent of the time for similar students in other schools. The 2013 study was funded by the Gates Foundation, which poured millions into the city’s small schools before ending its giving in 2008, citing lackluster college readiness rates.

An earlier study found that some of the small schools’ gains tapered off over time. That 2009 study, by the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs, said that the closure of large schools, which the small ones replaced, created “collateral damage” as an influx of students overburdened the remaining large schools.

Bard Queens student Omar Ferreira said he benefitted from the personal attention of a small school.
Bard Queens student Omar Ferreira said he benefitted from the personal attention of a small school.

David Allen, Bard’s assistant principal, said the city’s small school-drive had spurred many excellent schools, but that simply creating a small school is no “slam dunk.”

“I think it gives opportunities,” he said, “but it also gives some challenges.”

For instance, Bard Queens has thrived since it opened five years ago, largely because of its early-college program and its support from Bard College, Allen said. But it has also had to overcome obstacles in the building it shares with two public high schools and a community college, Allen said — namely, a shortage of space for gym class and science labs.

Omar Ferreira, 17, said he had entered Bard devoted to history, but became enthralled by the school’s math and science classes, where he said he received personal attention. After he finished two semesters of calculus-based physics at the school, a Bard professor agreed to add a third semester just for him and one other student.

Next fall, he will begin classes at the University of Chicago, where he plans to study physics.

“I feel definitely ready,” he said.

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