closing time

Ending an awkward chapter, UFT says it will close part of its struggling charter school

PHOTO: Geoff Decker

A chapter in the city teachers union’s awkward foray into the charter-school movement is ending.

The United Federation of Teachers announced Friday that the UFT Charter School will close its elementary and middle schools at the end of the year because of their low performance. The union will ask to hold onto its authority to operate the school’s high school grades.

The move, while not unexpected, is an embarrassing one for the union. When the school opened in 2005, then-UFT President Randi Weingarten said its success would demonstrate that unions could play a starring role in efforts to improve the school system and show that a union contract was not the “impediment to success” that education leaders like then-Chancellor Joel Klein portrayed it to be.

But the East New York school, which grew to serve students from kindergarten through twelfth grade, struggled early and never found its footing. It was one of the lowest-performing charter schools in the city over the last few years, and faced years of organizational dysfunction and financial distress, according to SUNY reports.

On Friday, the union acknowledged that its elementary and middle school grades had not met the standards set by its authorizer, the State University of New York.

In a statement, UFT President Michael Mulgrew took a parting shot at SUNY, saying its standards for renewal are too focused on state test scores. But the school has struggled on other measures, too. Under Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s new school-grading system, the school earned the lowest of four marks in all four categories, including the school environment and its success at closing the achievement gap.

The high school has performed significantly better: 44 of 50 students graduated on time last year, according to the city’s graduation rates.

A phone call to UFT’s elementary and middle schools was not answered on Friday.

The UFT’s move to give up its lower grades saves the school leadership from going through a public renewal fight. The school was essentially out of options after receiving a two-year renewal in 2013 on the condition that its academic performance improved by 2015. “I don’t want to have another round of this,” Joseph Belluck, chair of SUNY’s Charter Schools Committee, said then.

A spokeswoman for SUNY said that it would release an analysis of the school’s performance Monday. SUNY’s Board of Trustees are expected to vote on renewals for several charter schools, including UFT, on March 6.

The school had already earned one probationary renewal, but was given an extra chance after school leadership argued that bringing its elementary and middle school grades under one roof would spur improvement. That move required a controversial co-location, in another instance of the school prompting the union — a consistent opponent of charter school space-sharing during the Bloomberg years — to depart from its typical positions.

Closure of the UFT Charter school’s lower grades, which the union says enroll about 670 students and 50 teachers, would happen at the end of the year. The education department will work with families at the school to place students in new schools for next year, the union said.

Low-performing schools are facing growing scrutiny as they come up for renewal, as more than one in four charter schools in New York will this year, according to New York City Charter School Center CEO James Merriman.

Closures are rare, but the UFT Charter School is the second New York City charter school that SUNY will move to close this year. The Board of Regents, which gives final approval to charter-school decisions statewide, told the city recently that it needed to take a stricter approach to charter-school oversight.

The UFT serves as the collective bargaining unit for 21 charter schools, including the University Prep Charter High School, where Weingarten, now the head of the American Federation of Teachers, is still a board member. But the vast majority of the UFT’s 110,000 members work in district schools, and many remain deeply critical of the sector.

The feeling is mutual. Merriman said in a statement that he was “not surprised – but still dismayed” that the union “would not accept even the slightest responsibility for its abysmal failure to provide children with a great education.”

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