rookie of the year

First-year principal wins $25,000 to scale up collaborative teaching

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
James Madison High School Principal Jodie Cohen wins the 2014 Teaching Matters Elizabeth Rohatyn prize.

It didn’t take long for Jodie Cohen to distinguish herself when she became principal of James Madison High School last year.

After just one year in charge, Cohen bested over 150 principals to win the 2014 Elizabeth Rohatyn Prize, an award that recognizes school leaders who jump-start successful initiatives at their schools. The prize includes a $25,000 check, sponsored by education nonprofit Teaching Matters, to be used to continue and expand their initiative.

Despite her rookie status, Cohen already knew the 3,100-student school well. She graduated from the Marine Park high school in 1989 and spent 21 years working there as a teacher and assistant principal.

But that in some ways made the job more intimidating, Cohen said on Thursday at an award ceremony with other finalists and their staffs. As the school’s new boss, she had to observe and evaluate one senior teacher who had taught her when she was a student.

“Here I am, grading them on 22 components,” said Cohen, referring to the skills that principals had to rate teachers on this year. “So, it was interesting.”

But extra classroom visits, required by the new evaluation system, is actually what helped Cohen identify the best instructional practices, she said. She used those teachers to create “model classrooms” and began urging others to visit.

“It’s not that the other teachers aren’t succeeding, but more often than not, you don’t know what’s going on in the room next door to you,” Cohen said.

Madison High School’s collaborative model fits what the Department of Education is trying to do with 72 schools through its Learning Partners Program, which encourages schools to visit one another to learn what’s working elsewhere. Cohen said she planned to apply, but didn’t think she was ready this year.

“That was a lot of commitment on our part,” she said. “We would have to allow people to visit. We do want to do that next year, but we really just wanted to ease in a little bit more.”

At Madison, one example was special education teacher Connie Hickey, who saw problems with how students with disabilities were being served in general education classrooms. Special education teachers shared the class with subject-area teachers, but the co-teaching model was disjointed and their work was isolating. 

“It tended to be, well, I’ll teach one day, you teach the next,” Hickey said. “It wasn’t working.”

Hickey and a social studies teacher worked well together at integrating special education students into their classroom. So Cohen made their classroom into a model for others to visit.

Still, it was up to Cohen to actually get teachers to visit, and she quickly realized her advocacy alone wasn’t going to work in a building with 130 teachers. To build excitement around the practice, she promoted the visits in a weekly newsletter and created a calendar to schedule visiting times.

Cohen said she plans to spend some of the $25,000 prize money to pay staff who have to put in extra hours as part of the program. Larry Melamed, an English teacher, public relations pro and grant writer for the school, is going to manage next year’s schedule for the entire school.

Cohen hired Melamed for another reason this year: to improve what Cohen referred to as the school’s “weird reputation,” caused by a small number of teachers whose scandalous behavior was gleefully chronicled by the city’s tabloids.

“That’s not what Madison High School’s all about,” she said.

Cohen’s transition was probably a lot smoother than it is for many first-year principals. She was popular among teachers as an assistant principal, so they welcomed her promotion. Also, the majority of students come from surrounding neighborhoods and few come from socioeconomically disadvantaged homes. And most of the staff are seasoned educators who stay at Madison for much of their careers, so the staff had most of the ingredients needed to quickly adopt Cohen’s vision.

“All the teachers want to learn, want to do better at what they do and all they needed was a principal who fosters that learning,” said Hickey.

The Rohatyn prize is in its fourth year and named after the founder of Teaching Matters. Past winners include Salvador Fernandez, of I.S. 52 in Inwood, Rose Kerr, of Staten Island School of Civic Leadership, and Jeanne Rotunda, of West Side Collaborative.

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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