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De Blasio offers charter school mea culpa while still calling for change

In his first major education address, Mayor Bill de Blasio painted a picture of a system in crisis.

“We need to be able to say that despite the good efforts of so many, the school system is still broken in so many ways,” the mayor said.

It was the theme of de Blasio’s first lengthy attempt to offer his vision for the city’s school system, outside of debates about charter schools and pre-kindergarten funding that have dominated his first three months as mayor. But before getting to some of the big ideas, he offered a mea culpa over his handling of some recent charter school decisions.

“I have to tell you, I didn’t measure up when it came to explaining those decisions to the people of this city,” de Blasio told the Sunday crowd at Morningside Heights’ Riverside Church.

The mayor was indirectly referring to his administration’s decision to nix three space-sharing plans involving Success Academy charter schools, which has metastasized into a public relations mess for de Blasio—even though the city gave the green light to 19 other charter school plans.

Those reversals, and de Blasio’s laser focus on his campaign to increase New Yorkers’ access to pre-K for their four-year-olds and after-school programs for their middle schoolers, have meant the mayor has spent little time defining his vision for the rest of the city’s school system.

De Blasio didn’t mince words in Sunday’s speech, calling the status quo “a tragedy.” He cited the fact that less than two-thirds of the city’s students graduate on time and only 20 percent of students of color are at grade level by the third grade.

“So many parents are simply looking for the best for their children. And sadly, they don’t see it enough in their neighborhood school,” de Blasio said. “That’s a reality I won’t accept. I want that parent to know that we will not accept a neighborhood school that fails them.”

“I know Chancellor [Carmen] Fariña feels the same urgency I do,” he continued. “Our mission is to create a city in which regardless of zip code, your neighborhood public school is a great option for your child.”

That phrasing combined the rhetoric of his predecessor Michael Bloomberg, who spoke of the urgent need to reform the city’s school system,  and many of de Blasio’s allies, who are much cooler toward charter schools and want the city’s focus to be on improving traditional public schools.

De Blasio didn’t offer any new proposals, instead calling for a unified acknowledgement of the “root causes” of the city’s problems.

“I know people of every ideology who want to shake the foundations. I know teachers in traditional public schools who want to shake the foundations. I know charter school teachers who want to shake the foundations. But what can unify us is that sense of urgency,” he said.

That’s a very different tone than de Blasio’s schools chancellor has been taking in her first three months. Fariña has focused more on building rapport with teachers and principals than on explaining how the system isn’t up to par or spelling out specific goals for academic achievement or graduation rates. De Blasio, whose administration is also currently negotiating a contract with the teachers union, has been less shy about saying he thinks the city has a long way to go.

On charter schools themselves, de Blasio offered a mix of positions, some of them contradictory.

He said he wanted to “re-engage” with the idea that charter schools can develop models for traditional public schools to learn from, but also implied that he disapproved entirely of encouraging the charter sector to improve things for only a subset of the city’s students.

“The answer is not to find an escape route that some can follow and some can’t. The answer is to fix the entire system,” he said.

For de Blasio, that starts with pre-K. As budget proposals near completion in Albany, it seems likely that de Blasio will soon be outmaneuvered when it comes to funding his expansion of pre-K and after-school programs, since Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to pay for the plan for without raising taxes seems to have a broader appeal among lawmakers in Albany than de Blasio’s plan among lawmakers, who must approve the funding source.

Still, de Blasio was eager to portray the city as being on the cusp of big changes, thanks to Albany’s decisionmakers.

“I know in the next few days, the world will change before our very eyes,” 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 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