data dump

After criticism, city publishes Renewal goals, arguing they top state targets

PHOTO: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews
Mayor Bill de Blasio visited Boys and Girls High School, a Renewal school, in March 2015.

The city published its improvement goals for 94 struggling schools in its “Renewal” program Monday after facing a wave of criticism over a lack of transparency around the nearly $400 million program.

The city education department also released a detailed summary of those goals in response to charges that it had set a low bar for some of the troubled schools. Last week, a top state official accused the city of permitting “failure” after Chalkbeat reported that the schools had been given three years to meet one-year targets — which a few schools already hit this spring.

Newspaper editorial boards and a charter school advocacy group critical of Mayor Bill de Blasio quickly piled on. The New York Daily News called the goals “bureaucratic baby steps,” while the advocacy group, Families for Excellent Schools, called for the city comptroller to audit the Renewal program.

With Monday’s data release, the city fought back against those criticisms. The figures showed that the average Renewal high school must raise its four-year graduation rate by 17 points in three years — a major increase for low-performing schools that enroll a disproportionate share of high-needs students.

City officials also continued to make the case that the goals they set for the struggling schools are actually tougher than ones the schools must meet to avoid state takeover.

“The concrete targets we’ve set exceed those set by the state for its receivership program,” city education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye said in a statement. For some of the schools, the city is demanding academic gains 10 times higher than the state is, she added.

Of the 94 Renewal schools, 50 are also in the “receivership” program. By Monday, the city had created a new section on each school’s website that links to its goals for both programs.

Before, as Chalkbeat reported last week, parents and other members of the public had to search through the schools’ lengthy improvement plans to find the goals — and even then, some of the targets were not listed.

The education department also released new data Monday about the size of the Renewal schools’ goals.

The 30 Renewal high schools had an average four-year graduation rate of 47 percent in 2014, which they must boost to an average of 64 percent by 2017. (That was the citywide average graduation rate in 2014.) The lowest graduation rate goal for any Renewals school is 57 percent, according to officials.

The targets for elementary and middle schools appeared somewhat less demanding. For the 54 schools tasked with raising students’ scores on the state English exams, they must move students from an average of a level 2.08 to 2.20 in three years. (A level three or four is considered passing.) The 49 schools with math-exam goals must boost students’ average level from a 2.03 to 2.20.

In a shift, an education department spokeswoman also said that the city would “strengthen” the targets for any schools that meet their 2017 goals early.

After state Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch criticized the city’s Renewal program goals on Thursday, the city education department said its targets were more rigorous than those required of schools in the state’s own receivership program.

The data released Monday appeared to confirm that.

The 18 New York City high schools in the receivership program had an average four-year graduation rate of 44 percent in 2014, according to the city’s figures. To avoid takeover under the receivership program, they must boost that by an average of just three points by 2017.

For example, Banana Kelly High School in the Bronx must increase its four-year graduation rate from 42 to 45 percent by 2017 to avert receivership. But under the Renewal program, it is expected to raise its rate far higher — to 57 percent.

Meanwhile, elementary and middle schools in the receivership program need only boost their average state exam scores by three-hundredths of a level, according to the figures released by the city.

By design, the state program is more an accountability tool than a school-improvement system. While it is meant to prod districts to take immediate steps to revamp 144 of the lowest-ranked schools in the state, it only comes with $75 million to help fund those improvements — compared to the nearly $400 million for the 94 Renewal schools.

In an interview Friday, Assistant State Education Commissioner Ira Schwartz called the goals for the receivership program “pretty modest.” But he also said the state had required the city to raise some of its Renewal goals if it wanted to also use them as receivership targets.

For instance, he said the city originally submitted goals that would have receivership schools improve students’ average test score-levels by 0.06 points over three years. The state demanded that the gains be increased to 0.10 points over that period, Schwartz said.

“NYC has revised a number of its Renewal goals upward so that they would be accepted” for the receivership program, state education department spokesman Tom Dunn said in an email.

Kaye, the city spokeswoman, noted separately that the city had raised its goals for seven schools to match state targets. The city and state used different goal-setting formulas, Kaye said, with the city’s method factoring in the level of student need at each school.

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

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