accountability movement

City begins setting ‘rigorous, but reasonable’ targets for Renewal schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Chancellor Carmen FariƱa on one of her hundreds of school visits.

Since Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled his strategy for turning around the city’s lowest-performing schools seven months ago, officials have said all 94 schools would have to meet specific goals to avoid serious changes, including closure.

The city is now moving closer to determining those goals, as officials shared initial rubrics with schools this month and began setting goals for the next two years. Unlike the city’s “school snapshots,” which measure schools in identical ways, the schools in the Renewal program will have some choice as to how the city determines whether they’re measuring up.

With state deadlines approaching, the Department of Education is finalizing that menu of data points that struggling schools will use to measure their progress over the next two years. Attendance, state test scores, and graduation rates are included, and officials said they are still crunching parent and student survey data to come up with a half-dozen other metrics.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the menu showed that she was serious about holding schools accountable for improvement.

“We have established clear and rigorous school-specific benchmarks that schools must meet, or they will face consequences including changes to leadership and faculty of the school, school consolidation, and even closure as a last resort,” Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement.

Improved attendance will be a required goal for all schools and is the only metric that elementary and middle schools will be expected to show improvement on next year. High schools next year will also be expected to grow their share of students making progress toward graduation, based on how many courses and Regents exams they have completed.

In addition to attendance, elementary and middle schools will have to choose five other data points for which to set goals, three of which must be based on state test scores or former students’ credit accumulation in ninth grade. High schools can choose from graduation rates, pass rates on Regents exams, and course completion. The schools won’t be expected to hit targets for those categories until the end of the 2016-17 school year.

According to sample benchmarks provided to principals, a struggling high school with a four-year graduation rate of 54.8 percent last year would have to improve to 62.3 percent by the end of the 2016-17 school year, a 7.5-point gain over three years. A department official said the targets being set for the schools were “rigorous, but reasonable.”

The to-be-determined benchmarks will be based on a combination of data from parent and student surveys and scores from school quality reviews. Officials said they were only finalizing them now because the surveys were administered last month.

The details come seven months after de Blasio first pledged to spend $150 million over three years to help turn around the 94 schools. At the core of his plan is to flood the schools with resources aimed to support students living in poverty. The money will be used to pay teachers to work extended hours, add after-school summer programs, and hire extra guidance counselors, as well as to provide teachers with on-site training and bring in academic coaches.

It has been an uneven first year for schools under the program, with some receiving extra attention and others complaining that support has been slow to reach them. The program’s pace has been added fodder for critics who say de Blasio’s plan was not aggressive enough to fix schools that have been low-performing for years.

But the administration has put more of a focus on the Renewal schools in recent months, even redirecting more than $50 million from an expansion of the mayor’s after-school initiative.

A principal of a Renewal school said he had noticed the change, saying that a new deputy in his district superintendent’s office has been hired to specifically work with the struggling schools.

“Once I got that person, things started moving more quickly,” said the principal, who said he received a draft of the benchmarks more than a week before a customized version was sent to his school.

Principals and school leadership teams much agree on and submit the goals by June 15, a department spokeswoman said, four days shy of the June 19 deadline for the city to send in a more comprehensive plan for its struggling schools to the State Education Department.

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