the end

Stressful admissions process ends with sigh of relief for some students

PHOTO: Sarah Darville
Divine Jones with her mom, Danimaris Fonseca.

Leaving the citywide high school fair in September, Tiffany Mejia, an eighth grader in the Bronx, had her heart set on Food and Finance High School in Manhattan.

By December, when she had to submit a list of up to 12 high school choices to her guidance counselor, she had pushed Food and Finance to second place in favor of Humanities Preparatory Academy, a small school in Chelsea that enrolls both traditional ninth-graders and students who have previously struggled in other high schools.

And by Tuesday, when her school gave students the high school admissions letters the city had released the day before, Mejia said she just wanted the waiting to end. She was one of several students Chalkbeat met during the process and followed up with this week.

“I was scared, I was excited, I was nervous, I was just crazy,” Mejia said.

Mejia got her third choice, Wadleigh Secondary School for Performing and Visual Arts in Harlem — a small school that has repeatedly landed on the city’s list of lowest-performing schools in recent years. She said she was happy because she had heard good things about the school and because a close friend who also had her sights set on Food and Finance back in September was also matched with Wadleigh.

“That was one of the most exciting things about it, because I wanted to go to the same high school as at least one of my friends,” Mejia said. She said she didn’t have much sympathy for friends who weren’t matched with their top choices, because other students didn’t get matched at all.

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Ten percent of students citywide weren’t matched with schools during the first round and will have to reapply for unfilled seats and seats in new schools during a second round this month.

Jose Vilson, who teaches math at I.S. 52 in Washington Heights, said the number of students at his school who weren’t matched with any high school had declined from last year. But he said other students were just unhappy with their matches and might decide to appeal and try their luck in the second round.

Vilson said he and his colleagues knew from experience that it would be hard to get students’ attention after releasing the letters. So they gathered the eighth graders in the auditorium during the last period of the day on Tuesday.

 “There’s either a ton of excitement or a lot of sadness going on,” he said. “There’s very little in between.”

Divine Jones, an eighth grader who got her first choice, said she and her classmates felt the high stakes of the admissions process even though they could opt to attend their charter network’s high school.

“If we don’t get our top choice we don’t feel smart even though we are,” said Jones, who attends Bedford Stuyvesant Collegiate Charter School, part of the Uncommon Schools charter network. “One of my classmates didn’t get any of her choices. I felt bad because I know how smart she is but the high schools didn’t get to see that.”

Jones decided to apply to a district high school rather than staying at Uncommon for high school. She got into her first choice, Medgar Evers College Preparatory School in Brooklyn, a selective school of about 1,200 students.

“It feels awesome,” she said. “I”m going to be in a new environment with different people who are like me and ready to learn. I don’t have to hide my nerdiness and stuff.” Jones said she had hoped to get into a specialized high school but now felt that Medgar Evers would be “a little more me-ish.”

Jones said she wasn’t the only one at her school to look beyond Uncommon’s high school, which combines students from several middle schools run by the network.

“We go to a charter school [and] we have to stay in our seats,” she said. But when high school acceptance letters were distributed, “people were literally jumping out of their seats they were so nervous and excited.”

Her mother, Danimaris Fonseca, said she visited Medgar Evers during the application process with her daughter, and found that the environment there reminded her of the Brooklyn school she attended as a child, the Philippa Schuyler Middle School for the Gifted and Talented.

“One of my main things was like a nurturing family-like community environment. Because I know high school can be very intimidating, and I didn’t want her to come from a charter school which is really small and go to a huge high school where she felt intimidated by kids and teachers,” Fonseca said.

Another Brooklyn charter school, Explore, reported that nearly half of the 54 eighth graders were accepted to selective high schools, and one was among the seven black students accepted to the ultra-elite Stuyvesant High School. Just one student who had aimed for a public high school had not been matched, according to a spokeswoman for the network.

Some students, including Anthony Ureña, still haven’t received their letters.

As of Tuesday evening, Ureña, who attends eighth grade at I.S. 215 in the Bronx, still hadn’t heard where he would attend high school. His first choice is the High School for Arts and Business in Queens. He said teachers told him he’d find out on Friday, and that he and his friends don’t mind the wait.

“You know, you’ve got to wait for a long time to see if you got accepted or not,” he said. “So we mostly stopped talking about it.”

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