Priority Schools?

Classes have started, but some struggling schools still await clear guidance from the city

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Gassaway has attracted his share of critics, who say he has not done enough to improve the school during the five years he has led it.

The principal of Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn, one of the city’s lowest performing schools, emailed the schools chancellor the week before classes started asking to see the city’s intervention plan for his school. As of last week, he said, he still had not received a final version.

At another bottom-ranked school, the principal said he and his staff crafted their own school-improvement plan over the summer, but are still waiting for official feedback. He said city officials have not shared any plans of their own with the school, even though the state requires it to have a three-year turnaround strategy in place this year.

School-support network officials “told me to be patient, that the city has a plan for priority schools,” said the principal, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid retaliation. “That was in February or March. This is the end of September.”

More than two weeks into the school year, principals of some of the city’s most troubled schools say they still don’t know how exactly the city plans to intervene — and that the delays will make it harder for them to turn around their schools this year.

In fact, the state ordered such struggling schools to turn in improvement plans by July 31 and start acting on them by the start of the school year. But the city has so far only submitted “placeholder” plans created by the schools, and has asked for an extension until the end of October to submit the final versions, according to state officials.

The delays and limited release of information have prompted questions about whether Mayor Bill de Blasio and his schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, consider these schools a top priority and if they have a clear plan in place to turn them around.

“De Blasio and the chancellor knew coming in that this was a huge problem that they had all these schools that were struggling,” said Pedro Noguera, an education professor at New York University. “They put all their emphasis on preschool, but they don’t seem to get that they’re dealing with a much larger system.”

Gassaway said his school needs a well-thought-out improvement plan from the city, but "that’s the one thing that’s absent."
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Gassaway said his school needs a well-thought-out improvement plan from the city, but “that’s the one thing that’s absent.”

More than 90 schools in the city qualify as “priority schools,” a federal designation for the bottom 5 percent of schools in a state based on their test scores and graduation rates. Those schools must carry out “whole-school reforms” this year. Most of the schools have received federal grants to fund and guide those changes, but 29 that did not still need turnaround plans.

The whole-school reform calls for a performance review of the principal and teachers and the replacement of anyone deemed unsuccessful, more learning time for students, and a more rigorous academic program. Schools were supposed to describe those overhauls in their improvement plans, which the city asked for a three-month extension to submit.

Tom Dunn, a state education department spokesman, said the state and city are working together to make sure that next year the final plans are submitted and approved before the start of the school year.

Dunn added that schools usually craft the plans “under the direction and guidance of the district.” But the principal of the low-performing school that designed its own improvement plan this summer said it received almost no guidance.

The school’s leadership team filed an initial plan in June, then updated versions in August and last week, according to the principal. So far, the school has only received feedback on the budget portion of the plan, he said.

Meanwhile, the principal said he asked for extra money to hire a social worker, a math coach, and a reading specialist but got no response. Eventually, the school team gave up hope that they would get extra resources this year and designed their plan based on what was already available.

“We’re trying to rescue the school from priority status, so we can’t wait,” he said. “We’re trying to help ourselves.”

While those school-level plans are still being completed, the city has started to quietly roll out another intervention program for about two-dozen troubled schools. Some of the 29 schools that require whole-school overhauls are part of the program, which has been dubbed the “School Achievement Initiative,” while others are not.

Schools that are in the program have only been given basic information about it, according to principals. Meanwhile, new “school redesign” directors that are a key feature of the program only recently started visiting the schools to begin crafting customized improvement plans.

City officials briefed the leaders of the 23 schools in the program the week before school started. According to people who attended the meeting, the education department official overseeing the program gave a short PowerPoint presentation but said she couldn’t share copies of the slides with the principals until the mayor and chancellor publicly announce the program, which they have yet to do.

The program has “yet to be made transparent to schools,” one principal said, “let alone unveiled to the public.”

Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn is one of only two city schools to ever receive three straight F’s on its annual progress report.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn is one of only two city schools to ever receive three straight F’s on its annual progress report.

One of the schools in the program is Boys and Girls High School, a long-struggling institution in Bedford-Stuyvesant that is one of only two city schools to ever receive three straight F’s on its annual progress report. (The state considers it an “out-of-time” school because it has gone so long without enacting an approved overhaul, forcing the city to take even more drastic action there than at other struggling schools.)

So far the city has sent in two academic coaches and a former principal, who will act as the school’s redesign director, according to Bernard Gassaway, Boys and Girls’ principal. The school was also put under the oversight of a special superintendent who will monitor all the high schools in the intervention program.

The city also made the unusual decision not to send Boys and Girls any new students during the school year. Many critics, including Gassaway, have long said that struggling schools wind up with more of these “over-the-counter” students who often have greater needs than other students. It is unclear if other schools in the program will be granted a similar late-enrollment freeze — at least one other principal in the program said he had not been told.

Gassaway, who has opposed the city’s intervention plans for his school before, sent Fariña an email last month asking to see a final version of the school’s plan.

“BGHS is doomed to fail if we are expected to implement a plan in September 2014 that we have not seen since its first draft in July 2014,” he wrote on August 26. As of last week, he said he still had not received a copy of the final plan.

In an interview, Gassaway said the city’s delay would make it harder to improve the school.

For instance, he said he requested extra money in June to hire six new teachers with dual certifications in special education and other subjects. He said he only received that funding last month, after many teachers with those sought-after credentials had already been hired. By that time, he was only able to find two teachers with the dual certifications, he said.

“What would have helped this whole situation at Boys and Girls High School this year would have been a well-thought-out plan,” he said. “And that’s the one thing that’s absent.”

An education department spokeswoman said department officials started discussing a school-improvement plan with Gassaway and the school’s leadership team in the spring and continued to do so over the summer. The department has worked closely with Gassaway to identify and address the school’s needs, she added.

The city is taking a similar “proactive approach” with all of its struggling schools, developing tailored interventions for each one, said the spokeswoman, Devora Kaye.

“We are deeply committed to improving outcomes in all of our schools and ensuring that we meet the whole needs of each child and family,” she 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

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