Take Two

Report: City to resurrect special district for struggling schools

The education department is looking to resurrect a special district designed to support struggling schools, according to a news report, a signal that the new administration is holding to its pledge to flood the lowest performing schools with resources before it considers closing them.

The city is forming a plan to group about a dozen struggling high schools under a single district superintendent and offer them special support, according to the New York Post. Another cohort of elementary and middle schools would be kept separate but also receive extra support.

Chalkbeat could not confirm the report, and the Department of Education did not respond to questions on the plan. The United Federation of Teachers, which championed the now-defunct district that the new plan reportedly draws from, declined to comment.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s major school-improvement plan so far has been a partnership program that would group especially strong schools with schools that are weaker in specific areas to share effective practices and ramp up training for all teachers.

The new teachers contract also contains several provisions meant to boost schools, such as more time for professional development and extra pay for teachers who take on additional duties or work in hard-to-staff schools. Fariña has also promised to give greater assistance to middle schools.

But Fariña has yet to describe how the department will approach long-struggling schools that need intensive support. She has been critical of school closure, a signature tactic of the Bloomberg administration that Mayor Bill de Blasio has denounced, and said the department will not issue A-to-F report card grades in favor of more nuanced metrics.

De Blasio’s 2013 campaign platform called for an “early warning system” to identify schools that need immediate help and a “Strategic Staffing Initiative” that would replace the principals of the most challenged schools and send in a team of experienced administrators and teachers. The struggling-schools district would incorporate elements of de Blasio’s plan, according to the Post.

If the department established such a district, it would harken back to one that former Chancellor Rudy Crew created in 1996 to turn around 10 struggling schools, which eventually grew to include 58 schools before former Chancellor Joel Klein dissolved it in 2003.

Schools in the so-called Chancellor’s District received a slew of supports: smaller class sizes, longer days and years, new curriculum materials, more professional development, and extra staff. Teachers who worked in some of the schools received bonus pay. As those supports were rolled out, the Chancellor’s District schools eventually spent $2,400 more per student than the city’s other struggling schools.

The District schools achieved some limited success, with fourth-grade students’ reading scores outpacing those of other schools on the state’s list of struggling schools, according to a 2004 report. That report did not evaluate the 10 high schools in the program.

The UFT and others celebrated those results and pointed to the District as an alternative to school closure. But critics said they did not justify the amount of resources devoted to the schools.

Eric Nadelstern, an education department official under the Bloomberg administration, said the past program amounted to “micromanaging” low-performing schools, rather than overhauling them. He said that in the current administration were to group together low-performing schools it would conflict with its other strategy of partnering high-performing schools with others.

“Putting all your lowest-performing schools in the same jurisdiction is a terrible idea,” he said. “It’s like a remedial class for principals of schools.”

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