space crunch

How much space does a school need? City agrees to tweak its answers

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

The city has agreed to tweak how it calculates the amount of available space in school buildings, which are often shared by multiple schools, education department officials said Tuesday.

It has also agreed to consider bigger adjustments to the city’s school-space tally, known as the Blue Book, like factoring in how many special-needs students a school serves when calculating how much space it requires. The long-awaited changes stem from the recommendations of an advisory group formed last year to review how the city makes those space estimates, which guide decisions about whether buildings have enough room to house multiple schools and where new buildings are needed.

“These important recommendations will help us better use space in our schools,” Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement.

But the city rejected one of the group’s key proposals: to lower class-size targets for every grade. Doing so would have altered the city’s available-space formula, which could have resulted in more schools being labeled overcrowded and the city appearing to need more school space.

The decision dismayed some advocates who consider the Blue Book’s calculations key to reducing class sizes and curbing co-locations, the contentious policy where multiple schools are housed in the same building.

“You have to incorporate smaller classes into the formula or else the city will continue to co-locate and cram more students into these buildings,” said Leonie Haimson, executive director of the advocacy group Class Size Matters, in an email. She called the decision “hugely disappointing.”

The matter of school space has bedeviled Mayor Bill de Blasio, who campaigned on smaller class sizes and a temporary halt to new co-locations, but as mayor has faced new demands for space caused by his pre-kindergarten expansion and a growing charter-school sector. When he decided it was necessary early last year to allow some new co-locations, he also assembled the Blue Book advisory group partly to appease critics of that space-sharing policy.

Those critics charge that the guide can underestimate the actual space schools require and overestimate how much they have available, paving the way for unworkable co-locations. The advisory group, which includes advocates, parents, principals, and the head of the city agency in charge of school construction, sought ways to make the Blue Book “a more accurate reflection of the current state of our school buildings,” the recommendations say.

The city already took some of the group’s initial suggestions. Last year, the city included students who attend class in outdoor trailers in the enrollment count of their main school buildings. That change was expected to highlight how crowded school buildings will become once students are moved from the trailers back into the main buildings, which the city has called a priority.

Now, the city says its space estimates will take into account whether certain schools have teacher workrooms, private rooms for students to meet with counselors, and at least two rooms for special classes like art and science in small elementary schools — spaces that the working group implied schools need, but are not always prioritized.

Principals will also now be asked to list how many students they serve who have disabilities or are still learning English on the annual space surveys they complete. The city said it will consider a related recommendation: using those enrollment figures to determine how much space for special-needs students each school requires.

Isaac Carmignani, a Queens parent and advisory group member, said some of the group’s suggestions arose from school visits. At one school, they found a large closet without windows or full ventilation being used for counseling; at another, teachers had installed a bench and lamp in the stairwell landing where they were forced to work with special-needs students. He said that collecting more information about schools’ needs is the first step in making sure they are met.

“The Blue Book is only good as the data that’s put into it,” said Carmignani, who is also a member of the city’s education policy board.

Group members said they had finalized their recommendations by March, which is when an education department official told City Council members that the final report would be released “soon.” Carmignani said the delay was partly because City Hall wanted to prepare different constituencies for the recommendations, but also because it did not want them to play a part in budget negotiations this spring or the debate over mayoral control of the school system.

“Timing was very important,” he said. “I think some of the dust needed to settle on those other issues first.”

The rejected recommendation would have reduced the standard class size for middle and high schools in the Blue Book’s formula for calculating a school’s capacity. For instance, the standard for middle schools would shrink from 28 to 23 students per class. Since the average middle-school class had nearly 27 students last year, such a change would have shown more schools to be over capacity.

The de Blasio administration has made plans to create 40,000 new school seats to help alleviate overcrowding, but critics say that is not nearly enough in a city where one-third of elementary schools were over capacity in 2014, according to a city report.

Officials said the advisory group will continue to meet. Education department spokesman Jason Fink said the city shares parents’ and advocates’ desire for smaller class sizes, and that the Blue Book changes will help with that.

“This is a step forward,” he said, “and we will continue to work towards this critical goal.”

Read the group’s full recommendations:

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?

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.