New York

Charter school sues over closure decision it hopes de Blasio will overturn

Nimia Gutierrez (center), with school staff (left), her daughter and her eighth grade son.

A lawsuit filed last week by an embattled Brooklyn charter school could force Mayor Bill de Blasio to confront yet another one of his education campaign pledges — about school closures.

In November, citing the school’s poor performance, the Bloomberg administration recommended that Fahari Academy Charter School not be allowed to remain open after June.

Now, Fahari has filed suit— but only to avoid losing the right to pursue legal action because of a statute of limitations. The school’s lawyer said he’s confident that with de Blasio in office, the dispute can be handled out of court.

“We have a beef with the previous administration’s decision,”said Matthew Delforte, who filed the suit last week. The lawsuit charges that the city’s decision was made on faulty grounds, in part because the struggling school is improving, but Delforte said he would not pursue the suit if de Blasio overturns the Bloomberg administration’s decision.

Delforte said he believes that de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s approach to struggling schools put them on Fahari’s side. While Mayor Bloomberg saw the replacement of staff and administrators through school closure as the fastest and most effective way to improve schools, de Blasio criticized the controversial policy during his campaign for mayor.

“To too many people over at the Tweed building, closing a school is a panacea. They think it will solve all our problems,” de Blasio said in 2012 while public advocate.

Last year, Fariña said that struggling schools could improve if their principals and teachers had more opportunities to learn from other schools that produced better results. “Principal-to-principal, teachers-to-teachers, are the best vehicle to professional development that I know,” she said.

Students tend to perform better in new schools than the low-performing schools that were closed down, research has shown. But the results have been clouded by the finding that new schools have fewer students with the highest academic needs.

The city’s decision in November came after the Department of Education first placed Fahari under probation in 2012 following a tumultuous first three years of operation marked by low test scores, high staff turnover and student attrition. Last year, fewer than one in 10 students passed the 2013 English or math state tests.

The school has taken moves to correct its early missteps, bringing in new leadership and overhauling its curriculum to make it more aligned to Common Core learning standards. Officials at Fahari say the school has turned a corner and is now headed in the right direction.

“The [non-renewal] decision is really based on a school that no longer exists,” Delforte said. “It’s two really different places.”

Fahari supporters, including United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, have lobbied the de Blasio administration to reverse the decision and renew the school’s charter, which would then be kicked up to the Board of Regents for final approval.

“[I]…join the Fahari community in urging you to rescind your predecessor’s recommendation and instead recommend to the Regents that the school’s charter should be renewed for another term,” Mulgrew said.

A department spokesman did not comment on the lawsuit, but said in a statement that no decisions about Fahari have been made. The issue is part of the long list of Bloomberg-era policies that Fariña is still reviewing, nearly four months into her tenure.

“Since January 1st, we’ve been engaging in a top-to-bottom review of every decision and policy that we inherited,” said the spokesman, Harry Hartfield. “That includes the non-renewal of Fahari.”

The lawsuit alleges that the city’s decision was wrong on several grounds, including that the non-renewal was not decided in the way that state law dictates. Delforte said the city’s decision should have been treated as a charter “revocation,” which would have given the school a chance to respond and provided an additional public hearing. It also argues that the city created and inconsistently applied some renewal standards, such as the school’s worst-ranked status on the city’s progress reports, while ignoring other ones, such as its popularity with parents and its improvement efforts.

“The DOE’s inconsistent application of standards reflects that in practice, there are no accountable standards guiding the DOE’s renewal or nonrenewal decisions,” the suit concludes. 

The office that historically has overseen the city’s authorizing duties is in a state of flux, having recently lost its executive director, Sonia Park, who took a job running two Manhattan charter schools. It’s supposed to oversee city-authorized charter schools based on its own accountability criteria. But there is some concern that the ultimate accountability, to close low-performing charter schools, could be withheld if Fariña and de Blasio change their intervention approach for district schools, as they’ve pledged.

The ongoing uncertainty around Fahari has parents at the school anxious about where their kids will go to school next year. Tessa Minss, whose daughter is in fifth grade, said that if Fahari stays open, “I’m in.”

“But if it’s decided not to stay open, then I have to move her,” Minss said, adding “no one wants to keep moving their kids.”

Notice of Petition W Verified Petition Without Exhibits 03 12 13 (PDF)

Notice of Petition W Verified Petition Without Exhibits 03 12 13 (Text)

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