protest movement

Advocates pushing city on struggling schools choose an unlikely champion

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Tenicka Boyd, an organizer for StudentsFirstNY, spoke at a rally outside Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn.

The city’s delay in publicizing plans for its struggling schools has made strange bedfellows of an advocacy group that supports school closures and a principal who for years resisted his own school’s potential shuttering.

Families organized by StudentsFirstNY rallied outside the long-struggling Boys and Girls High School on Monday, calling on the mayor to announce a clear improvement plan for the school. It was the latest effort by StudentsFirstNY, a group that advocates for charter schools and school choice, to pressure city officials to more quickly articulate a comprehensive plan for the city’s lowest-performing schools.

Principal Bernard Gassaway made the same point when he announced his resignation late last week, blasting the city for offering incomplete plans that were “doomed to fail.” Boys and Girls, which received an “F” letter grade from the city three years in a row, has long struggled to raise test scores and graduation rates. And though Gassaway didn’t attend Monday’s rally, when schools were closed, he indicated that he didn’t mind staying involved.

“I have no problem being used for any just cause,” Gassaway said in an email. “The fact is: There is no comprehensive, strategic plan. I support all efforts to right the wrongs of this and any administration.”

Over the last few months, critics of the de Blasio administration’s education policies have shifted their focus to struggling district schools. Improvement plans for the city’s lowest-performing schools were due July 31, but the city asked for and received an extension to file those plans until next month. Thousands of families and advocates organized by the pro-charter Families for Excellent Schools pressed the mayor for a struggling-schools plan at a rally in lower Manhattan earlier this month.

But Gassaway is an unconventional choice of a champion for StudentsFirst and Families for Excellent Schools — an advocacy group which referred to the principal as a “widely respected educator” in a press release on Monday. Gassaway criticized the Bloomberg administration even as Boys and Girls avoided closure in recent years as the school’s reputation and enrollment declined during his five-year tenure. StudentsFirst and Families for Excellent Schools support closing low-performing schools.

City and state officials said last month they would not send students to Boys and Girls mid-year, and that a more detailed plan is forthcoming. Education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye said this week that Gassaway’s departure could benefit the school.

“Boys and Girls High School was moving in the wrong direction, and it was always the DOE’s intention to find a stronger leader for this school,” Kaye said Monday. Officials said the department is moving to install an interim principal.

Meanwhile, StudentsFirstNY’s director Jenny Sedlis said if the group did not see a quick response from the city, it would begin planning future rallies.

“Here we are with no principal, no leadership from City Hall, and no plan on what we’re going to do next,” said Darlene Boston, a mother of two sons who both dropped out of Boys and Girls. They were part of a class-action suit filed against the city in 2005 that charged the school with warehousing disruptive students in the school’s auditorium until they dropped out.

Howard Pressley, a senior at Boys and Girls who attended the protest with his father, said he is on track to graduate and plays on the basketball team. “A lot of people get the wrong idea about the school,” he said. “I feel like it’s a family.”

The school does have significant issues, he acknowledged. “A lot of kids barely come to school, maybe two days a week,” he said.

Patrick Wall contributed reporting. 

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