not going quietly

Brooklyn charters protest city’s closure decision, as at least one prepares to fight

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

The two struggling charter schools that the city plans to close in June aren’t going down without a fight.

Both schools, Fahari Academy Charter School and the Ethical Community Charter School, were told last week that the city would not renew their charters. Now, both say the city has ignored their strengths and are pushing back, with Fahari hinting at possible legal action.

“We will exhaust all options to ensure that this decision is reconsidered and reversed so that we may remain the incredible place of opportunity we have become for our families, staff, and students,” Jason Starr, board chair of the Fahari Academy Charter School, wrote in a four-page statement.

“We ask you to restore our faith in your leadership by visiting our school and revising your renewal decision,” Annette Keane, principal of Ethical Community, wrote in a letter to Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

Fahari’s response in particular underscores an ongoing struggle for the city’s charter school office, which has had trouble closing schools in the past — both when it has tried to not renew an expiring charter, and when it has tried to revoke a charter mid-term. Low-performing schools, or ones in precarious financial positions, have successfully sued to remain open by proving in court that the city’s performance standards were moving targets and poorly communicated.

“The entire procedure utilized by the [charter school office] for revocation is riddled with inconsistencies and lacks a certain level of transparency,” a judge wrote in a 2012 ruling that overturned the city’s decision to close Williamsburg Charter High School.

Peninsula Preparatory Charter School also used the courts to stay open after the city attempted to close it in 2012. Fahari’s board has used the tactic, too, suing to keep the school open last year but withdrawing the lawsuit after Fariña agreed to give the school a one-year reprieve.

The situation has looked different for schools authorized by the State University of New York. Two SUNY-authorized schools set to close at the end of this year, UFT Charter School and Innovate Manhattan Charter School, had boards that voluntarily surrendered their charters (or in UFT’s, the charter for the school’s lower grades), in part because SUNY’s tightly enforced standards left little question that they would be closed.

Following the announcement on Friday, leaders at both Fahari and Ethical Community also criticized the city for giving the schools minimal advance notice that they were facing closure. Jason Starr, Fahari’s board chair, said he was shocked when the city informed the board.

“Neither Fahari’s Board of Trustees nor its administration were given notice of the DOE’s intentions, much less an opportunity to respond before the decision was made,” Starr said.

Keane, principal of Ethical Community, said she found out about 90 minutes before the city made its announcement, leaving her “completely blindsided by the media blitz that ensued.”

“Our families came to school shocked and confused, many in tears, on Friday morning,” Keane wrote in her letter to Fariña. “The Ethical Community Charter School believes it was unfair for you to deny our school the opportunity to share the news of our closure with our own community members.”

On Thursday afternoon, department spokeswoman Devora Kaye acknowledged in an email to reporters that the schools had been notified recently. In response to the schools’ criticism, she told Chalkbeat that the city had communicated the stakes and the timeline for its decisions with the schools.

“This was not a surprise,” Kaye said in a statement. “Each of these schools was given clear conditions with benchmarks for performance they had to meet to demonstrate they were best serving children. Both failed to do so.”

Thursday’s notice triggered a 30-day process, she added, during which each school’s board will get a chance to formally respond to the city’s decision.

Correction: A previous version misstated the Board of Regents’ role in approving the city’s non-renewal decisions. Unlike renewal decisions, no action from the Regents is needed to close charter schools through a non-renewal. 


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