non-public policy

Responding to complaint, city vows to investigate secular learning at 39 Jewish schools

PHOTO: Jackie Schechter
The city has made a strong push to include Jewish schools in its drive to add thousands of new public pre-K seats.

With its pre-kindergarten expansion underway and its school-turnaround program under pressure to perform, New York City has its hands full with its own schools.

And yet the city was recently reminded that it is also on the hook for overseeing private schools, under a state law that says local officials must ensure that non-public school students receive an education “substantially equivalent” to that of their public school peers.

Last Monday, more than 50 Jewish school parents, former students, and former teachers invoked that rule in a letter asking several superintendents to investigate nearly 40 yeshivas that they claim offer unacceptably scant instruction in math, English and other non-religious subjects. The education department has promised to investigate, as Jewish Week first reported.

“We take seriously our responsibility to ensure that all students in New York receive an appropriate education, and we will investigate all allegations that are brought to our attention,” spokesman Harry Hartfield said in a statement. He did not answer any specific questions about the investigation.

Such an investigation would be a rare move, experts say. While Catholic, Islamic, Jewish and other private schools receive millions of public dollars for things like busing, testing, and immunizations, they operate almost entirely out of public view. And though the city is responsible for keeping tabs on the private schools in its borders, other factors can get in the way: City officials have limited resources, a reluctance to overstep church-state boundaries, and an awareness that these schools serve politically connected communities.

“There are political, fiscal, and legal complications involved in this,” said David Bloomfield, an education professor at Brooklyn College and The CUNY Grad Center, referring to the city’s duty to oversee private schools. “All of them militate against the application of the rule.”

There are 250 yeshivas in New York City serving more than 106,000 students, making it the largest non-public school sector. While many Jewish schools are known for their mix of rigorous religious and secular studies, some of the yeshivas that educate boys in the city’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities have long been said to focus primarily on religious instruction.

The group responsible for last week’s letter, Young Advocates for Fair Education, or Yaffed, has been asking the government to probe yeshivas’ academic programs since 2011 but said it saw no signs of official action until delivering this letter, which was also sent to media outlets.

The group says that most yeshiva classes are taught in Yiddish or Hebrew and focus on religious texts, with just 90 minutes per day devoted to math and English for young students and often no secular studies for high school-aged boys. (Girls tend to enjoy a more equal mix of studies.) Yaffed founder Naftuli Moster, who attended a Borough Park yeshiva, said the school left him woefully unprepared when he decided to enroll in a community college.

“I didn’t know what the word ‘essay’ meant,” he said, “let alone how to write one.”

State law says that private schools must offer reading, math, science, history, health, and other academic classes on par with those in public schools. If a local superintendent finds that a school is not doing so and fails to make changes, the district can cut off the school’s public transportation and its funding for textbooks and health services, and mark its students truant, the law says.

The group has been on a multi-year quest to get the government to look into secular education at these schools. Moster said he met with state officials in 2012, but they told him that district superintendents are responsible for enforcement. So Moster met with a few Brooklyn superintendents with many yeshivas located in their districts, but he said they knew little about the rule.

Last December, the group sent a letter to top state and city officials requesting an investigation into secular studies at ultra-Orthodox yeshivas, but got no response. This time, they enlisted 52 parents and former yeshiva students and teachers to sign onto the letter and forwarded it to local superintendents and the media.

The letter asked for an investigation of the academic instruction at 39 specific yeshivas: 38 in Brooklyn and one in Queens. The group withheld the names of the signatories and the yeshivas — part of an effort to reassure the ultra-Orthodox community that the group’s intent is to reform the yeshiva system, not to sanction individual schools.

Maury Litwack, state political affairs director for the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center, which represents New York yeshivas, said the schools have a “dual curriculum” of religious and secular studies that they “are always looking to improve.” However, he said many schools are cash-strapped and could use more public funds to support math, English, and other non-religious instruction.

“If the city and state want to have a robust discussion about how our kids are educated, that discussion has to include what they’re willing to invest,” he said, “because right now the answer is a very paltry amount of funding.”

Several experts on the ultra-Orthodox community said they knew of no instance when the city education department had investigated a yeshiva’s academic program. And now may be an especially sensitive time for the agency to begin conducting such investigations since City Hall has spent the past year trying to convince yeshivas to join in the mayor’s signature initiative and offer full-day pre-K, even though that means less religious instruction for their students. The ultra-Orthodox community is also considered a powerful voting bloc.

At an unrelated press conference Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio seemed unfamiliar with the city’s responsibilities under the equivalent-education rule when asked about the call to investigate the yeshivas.

“I’m not sure I follow, because obviously it’s a separate school system,” he said, adding that he needed to review the matter.

But City Hall spokesman Wiley Norvell said the city takes its duty seriously to address complaints about any private school, including the yeshivas cited in last week’s letter.

“Everyone is held to the same standard,” he said in a statement, “and there is zero tolerance for the kind of educational failure alleged.”

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