Turnover at the top

New Queens Regent reflects New York’s shifting ed policy landscape

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Judith Chin, a new member of the Board of Regents, after being appointed by the state legislature.

Updated — As the state’s governing board of education enters a new phase, perhaps no one embodies its changes more than New York City’s newest representative, Judith Chin.

When Chin, born to Chinese immigrants, officially joins the Board of Regents next month, she’ll be the first Asian-American member in its 231-year history. She’s also one of nine women on a 17-member board, elected Tuesday, that is likely the most diverse it has ever been.

“That was quite significant, that I was making history,” Chin said after hearing the precedent announced by Assembly education committee chair Catherine Nolan shortly before lawmakers officially appointed her on Tuesday. “The fact that I’ll be a role model for so many immigrant children is something.”

Chin is part of other shifting dynamics, too.

After starting her career as a teacher in East Harlem in 1972, Chin rose to hold top positions under three chancellors, and she is now one of six Regents who are career educators. Her professional and personal experience as an English language learner “shaped how I look at children that come from different backgrounds,” she told lawmakers last month, as she recalled being one of the only minority students at her school in Midwood and not being able to speak English on her first day.

“I clawed at my father’s trousers hoping that he would never let me go,” said Chin, now a program director for the Reading and Writing Workshop at Teacher’s College.

Like other new Regents appointed on Tuesday, Chin said she has concerns about many of the changes made in recent years under board Chancellor Merryl Tisch and former Commissioners David Steiner and John King, especially the rollout of the Common Core standards. She called the state’s testing and evaluation policies a “gotcha game” and suggested charter schools are about profiting “on the backs of children and teachers.”

“I think just the vastness of it was probably not doable at all,” Chin said of the Common Core during her interview with lawmakers, contrasting the state’s implementation of those standards with her experience developing city-specific standards under former New York City Chancellor Rudy Crew.

Chin and three other new members are taking the reins at an uncertain moment. Regents are searching for a new commissioner to run the State Education Department, while sweeping changes to state education laws are being mulled by the legislature — policies that the Regents would be charged with implementing.

She is also part of a reshuffling that reflects a larger power struggle over education policy at the state level.

Also joining the board are Catherine Collins of Buffalo, and Beverly Ouderkirk of upstate New York, both of whom successfully challenged incumbents who supported Tisch’s policy stewardship. Last year, another Regent stepped down under similar circumstances.

Chin replaces Geraldine Chapey, who resigned voluntarily last year. Judith Johnson, of Westchester, was appointed to replace Harry Phillips, who announced his plans to step down months ago when his term expires in April. (Two incumbent Regents from New York City, Kathleen Cashin and Lester Young, were reappointed on Tuesday.)

There has been growing dissent surrounding the education policy changes enacted in recent years, most notably from the state teachers union. New teacher evaluation systems tied to test scores, adoption of the Common Core learning standards and tougher teacher preparation requirements for prospective teachers were all pushed with $700 million in Race to the Top funding over the last half-decade, and the polices have drawn fierce opposition. The Democrat-controlled Assembly has addressed that dissent through the Regents selection process, which it controls.

“Do I see these replacements as a reaction to what people are hearing in their home district? Absolutely,” Tisch told reporters after the vote. “A lot is frustration. A lot is misinformation.”

After her stint in East Harlem, Chin taught at a school in Crown Heights before becoming the principal of schools in Chinatown and Chelsea. More recently, she served as a superintendent and network leader under Joel Klein, helping to open one of Queens’ first small high schools in 2004, Flushing International High School.

“She knew who those students were, she understood who English language learners were and she understood why a school like ours would be so helpful to them,” said Claire Sylvan, of the Internationals Network for Public Schools, which includes Flushing International.

And though Chin said she supported giving parents more school options, she is skeptical about whether charter schools are the answer. She questioned whether they were performing well enough, even though they aren’t “playing on the same fair playing field” as district schools.

“I also wonder if charter schools are more towards gaining organizational profit off the backs of children and teachers,” she said in her interview.

The New York State United Teachers, which has often sparred with King and Tisch over the years, called the new members an “opportunity for a fresh start and the Regents to begin rebuilding trust.”

But Cashin, who is completing her first five-year term as Brooklyn Regent, wasn’t ready to say that the new members marked a sea change, yet.

“I don’t know yet if this moment is going to really generate change,” said Cashin. “We’ll have to wait and see.”

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