the teacher project

At The Equity Project Charter School, a math teacher sees echoes of his past

PHOTO: Aparna Alluri

This is one part of an occasional series focusing on the individuals who make up the city’s 80,000-member public school teaching force, produced in conjunction with the Covering Education course at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. 

When 24-year-old Kadeem Gill started teaching at The Equity Project Charter School, he thought it was a temporary stop. Ten months later, he finally turned down an offer of admission from Columbia Law School—a journey that has wound in and out of Bedford-Stuyvesant, where he grew up a short walk from three public housing projects.

There, he lived with his mother, Mickey Ruiz, who worked full time, and his younger brother, Jonathan. He rarely saw his father.

“I dedicated my entire childhood to getting out of that,” said Gill. Half African-American, half-Puerto Rican, Gill is lean and stylish, with crisp, collared shirts are always tucked in, often under vests, his hair perfectly gelled.

And he did get out—all the way to Princeton University. But something drew him back. His half-brother, Danny, had always told him he would make an “awesome teacher.” After Danny was shot and killed, Gill decided he would listen.

Two years later, fresh from a stint with Teach for America and armed with master’s degree in adolescent special education, he joined TEP to teach sixth-grade math.

Housed in 15 trailers in Washington Heights, TEP is a five-year-old middle school. Nearly 90 percent of its students are eligible for free lunch, a standard measure of poverty, and 20 percent have special needs.

Special education, more than anything else, drew Gill to teaching. Jonathan had severe behavioral problems, and his schools “just didn’t know how to help him,” said Gill. “He didn’t have trouble keeping up in class but he had emotional issues. But they treated him like he had a learning disability.”

As Jonathan grew older, Ruiz found it harder to convince him to take his medication or even go to school. She couldn’t afford counseling. When he did go to school, he got into trouble for acting up in class, kicking down doors and lashing out at teachers.

His outbursts alarmed Ruiz, who remembers locking her door at night. “I just didn’t know how to help him,” she said. “There was nothing nobody could do for me.”

By then, Gill had left for boarding school in Connecticut, where he had been awarded a scholarship. Summer breaks were tumultuous. While his classmates traveled abroad, Gill came home to news that one of his cousins had been stabbed or robbed. And there was Jonathan, who hadn’t taken Gill’s decision to go to boarding school well.

“My brother was just looking to win,” said Gill. “He was asked to comply so much, he started to break rules.” But, Gill added, no one knew how to address Jonathan’s behavior.

Gill vividly remembers attending special education meetings along with his mother. Ruiz would often leave feeling confused, Gill said, because teachers couldn’t help her understand or deal with Jonathan. After repeatedly changing schools, Jonathan dropped out when he was 16 years old.

“The school system failed him,” said Gill, who said he, in return, is willing to “dig and dig to find out what it takes to reach each kid.”

On a recent Friday afternoon in Gill’s sixth-grade math class, Roniel, a student with special needs, and Ruddy were working together in a group. When Roniel refused Ruddy’s help with a problem, an annoyed Ruddy said, “Whatever. You can’t do this work anyway.”

Clearly upset, Roniel stalked away. Gill, who had been watching Roniel closely, asked him to step out of the classroom with him.

Once they were outside, Roniel started to cry. Gill asked Roniel to take deep breaths, then to name a dish he didn’t like.

“School lunch,” said Roniel.

“No, school lunch tastes great,” said Gill.

They argued for a few minutes and then, Gill said, “Have I been able to change your mind about school lunch?” Roniel said no.

“Then no one should be able to change your mind about your abilities and your potential,” Gill said.

For the chance to be that encouraging voice, he said, he is willing to be back home, where he is constantly reminded of a childhood that he once preferred to forget.

“There’s no way I would be the teacher I am today if I didn’t go through what I did,” Gill said. “That I am back where I started is painful and also fulfilling.”

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