push back

At widespread anti-Cuomo protests, parents and teachers to join hands

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Takiema Smith, a parent at the Brooklyn New School, opted her child out of state exams in 2014.

The seeds for the more than 80 protests that will break out at schools across the city Thursday were planted in January.

That’s when Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced he would link a potential boost in state education funding to a series of controversial policy changes, including tying teacher evaluations more closely to student test results, raising the charter-school cap, and placing consistently low-performing schools in the hands of outside groups. Before and after school Thursday, a number of advocacy groups — led largely by anti-testing advocates and later joined by the city teachers union — plan to join hands and form human chains around school buildings in what organizers say is a symbol of their displeasure with those ideas.

“That was the moment,” Danielle Boudet, an upstate education advocate and one of the organizers of the rallies, said of Cuomo’s announcement. “People were fighting from their own individual circles, but his agenda has galvanized all those groups.”

For the union, the rallies serves as another skirmish in the public-facing battle with Cuomo over evaluations, teacher tenure rules, and overall funding levels. City teachers union president Michael Mulgrew and his predecessor, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, will speak at the morning rally at Park Slope’s P.S. 10, which is known for its presence in the movement to opt out of state tests. The pair will also attend P.S. 200’s afternoon rally in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.

While the nearly 100 participating schools are largely concentrated in Brooklyn’s District 15, rallies will also be held at schools across the rest of that borough, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island, according to organizers.

Similar to recent forums focused on opting out of state testing, participating schools are concentrated in higher-performing districts, with some exceptions. More than half of the participating schools are in the city’s 10 highest performing districts on the state’s math or English exams.

Slightly less than one-third of the schools are either in the city’s lowest performing districts on state tests. Two of the participating schools are in the city’s Renewal program, and only one of the participating schools is in the Bronx.

The idea for the small, widespread protests featuring the camera-ready formations of parents and teachers “protecting” their schools started with smaller groups of parents.

Boudet serves on the steering committee of the New York State Allies for Public Education, a group whose members push back against the rising frequency of testing in schools. Shortly after Cuomo’s remarks in January, the group began to brainstorm ways to oppose the governor’s focus on standardized testing and pull in support from those concerned with other portions of his agenda. Class Size Matters Executive Director Leonie Haimson, who serves on the Allies steering committee with Boudet, brought the idea of the human chains to the United Federation of Teachers at a planning meeting in February.

The rallies are being organized before and after school hours, in a knock to the charter school sector’s rally last week for which schools bused hundreds of students to Albany, Haimson said.

“We can’t ask public schools to close,” Haimson said. “I thought the idea of protecting our schools would be a very good contrast to the charter schools.”

Cuomo’s proposal to increase the influence of student test scores in teacher evaluations has also angered some of the same parents who rallied against testing last year. The governor’s plan will invariably lead to teaching to the test, they said.

“A year ago or so things looked like they were moving in the opposite direction on testing,” said Dan Janzen, PTA president at P.S. 295 in Brooklyn. “Suddenly the plan comes out and things look like they are getting worse and they are going to continue getting worse.”

But even teachers who are mostly able to avoid state tests are planning to participate in Thursday’s events.

Hundreds of educators, advocates, and students are expected to participate in a Manhattan rally organized by City-As-School, which is one of more than two dozen city high schools that have state permission to tie graduation to a student’s portfolio of work instead of Regents exam scores.

Principal Alan Cheng said the planned march to Washington Square Park Thursday afternoon was organized by the school’s teachers as they became more aware of Gov. Cuomo’s proposed education overhaul, especially the changes that would make it more difficult for teachers to earn tenure.

“Teachers should be able to demonstrate their growth over time,” he said.

The rally is also meant to highlight the school’s membership in the New York Performance Standards Consortium, which allows students to complete in-depth projects to graduate instead of passing most of the required Regents exams.

“Our students, their experiences are truly shaped by being able to do that kind of work,” Cheng said. “But many students have not had the opportunity, and the state is making it even harder for other schools to consider these ideas.”

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