closing time

City will shutter Fahari, Ethical Community charter schools, Fariña’s first closures

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Fahari Academy Charter School, above, will close in June.

The city will close the long-struggling Fahari Academy Charter School and The Ethical Community Charter School at the end of this year, officials said Thursday. They will be the first schools closed by the de Blasio administration.

The city was the authorizer of both charter schools, which have been at risk of closure in the past. And while the city recently appealed to the Board of Regents to be allowed to spend more time helping struggling charter schools before closing them, Thursday’s decision indicates that there is a limit to the city’s willingness to help schools that have foundered for years.

“I’ve been clear that closing schools is a last resort, however, if a school is not demonstrating progress, then all options are on the table,” Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement. “These two schools were given time to show student progress, and they failed to do so. I will not let failure continue.”

The Fahari decision represents a reversal for Fariña and the city’s charter school office, which saved the school from closure only eight months ago because city officials said they saw signs of improvement. After visiting this year, however, they concluded that underlying problems that have dogged the school for years, such as weak instruction and leadership, had not been addressed.

In its lengthy statement announcing its decision, the department cited the schools’ low proficiency rates on state tests, as well as high teacher turnover and high suspension rates. A spokeswoman added that Fahari met just two of seven of the academic goals that were negotiated before last June’s one-year renewal.

Despite the schools’ track records, the decisions are awkward ones for the city, which has said that struggling district schools should be given resources and time to improve and criticized the Bloomberg administration’s reliance on school closures as a mechanism for improving schools. But the city also acts as the authorizer to 70 charter schools, which operate with the explicit bargain to succeed or be closed.

State officials expressed doubts about the city’s ability to act as an authorizer because of de Blasio administration’s reluctance in closing low-performing district schools. But “it’s finally beginning to understand what being an authorizer is and how that’s not the same as being a district administrator,” a source familiar with the decision said.

Both Fahari and Ethical Community have struggled for years, and had already been put on a short leash.

Fahari was put on a one-year probation in 2012, just three years after opening. The school’s founding principal was replaced after hoards of students and staff fled, but it wasn’t enough to prevent the Bloomberg administration from recommending its closure a year later.

The school’s arrow seemed to be pointing up last November, when it was deemed “good” or “excellent” at showing academic progress in all four categories, according to the city’s new school-evaluation tool. Still, just 11 percent of students were proficient in English, below the district average, and 15 percent were proficient in math, the same as the district.

Fahari did not immediately comment on the city’s decision.

Recent results looked worse for The Ethical Community Charter School, where only half of teachers said order was maintained and proficiency rates on state tests were less than half of its district averages. Ethical Community had already received one chance to improve — a two-year renewal in 2013.

Fahari currently enrolls 390 students in fifth through eighth grades, and Ethical Community enrolls 260 students in kindergarten through fifth. All of the students who aren’t going on to high school or middle school, respectively, will have to find seats in other schools next year.

The schools join a growing list of charter schools set to close in June. The UFT Charter School’s elementary and middle school grades, which serve more than 600 students, will close then, as will Innovate Manhattan Charter School. New Hope Academy, which has fought its closure recommendation, is likely to close as well.

“When a charter school doesn’t meet its goals of improving student achievement, then the appropriate response is closure, especially where a school has been given time to show improvement,” New York City Charter School Center CEO James Merriman said in a statement.

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