If a school is broken but appears to be on the mend, should the state intervene?

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Parents and students at Sheffield Elementary School protest the state's proposal to take control of the Memphis school and convert it to a charter school managed by Aspire Public Schools.

Parents and students chanting “Leave us alone!” congregated Thursday outside of Sheffield Elementary School to send a message to the Tennessee Achievement School District that their struggling Memphis school is making enough strides to avoid state intervention.

One of five Memphis schools targeted for state takeover and charter conversion next year under an ASD proposal, Sheffield is among the lowest-performing schools in both Shelby County Schools and the state. But under new leadership in the last two years, the school is beginning to turn that trajectory.

“Why would you want to take over a school that is improving?” asked Barbara Riddle, whose two grandchildren attend Sheffield.

Riddle was among about 60 parents and students gathered outside the school’s main entrance after the school day to show their support of the school’s current leadership and their confidence in the administration’s turnaround strategy.

“I’m here to save our school,” said Riddle, applauding the work of principal Patricia Griggs-Merriweather. “She’s laid the foundation. Why not give her the opportunity to build on it? I mean, Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

State Rep. Raumesh Akbari, whose district includes the school, questioned whether the payoff from state intervention would be worth the disruption of wresting control of Sheffield from Shelby County Schools and turning it over to Aspire Public Schools, the charter network that has applied to manage the school.

“I don’t want those students to go through the trauma of a takeover where the principal is gone, all the teachers have been fired, and a whole new mentality comes in,” said Akbari (D-Memphis). “… Our principal is getting it right. Don’t interrupt the progress that we’re making.”

Since 2012, Sheffield has been on Tennessee’s list of priority schools that fall in the state’s bottom 5 percent. On standardized tests last school year, 38 percent of its students met the state’s proficiency bar in math and 14 percent in reading — lagging behind the district and significantly behind state averages.

But the state’s own measures of growth suggest that the school is making significant strides — almost enough to keep it from state intervention under a new Tennessee law sponsored by Akbari and removing a priority school from ASD eligibility with a TVAAS growth score of 4 or 5. Sheffield’s reading scores grew slightly and its math scores increased by more than expected, based on student demographics and past performance, earning a TVAAS score of 3.

“The criteria for ASD eligibility are clear, and since the recent passing of the TVAAS law championed by Rep. Akbari, it is now clearer than ever,” said a statement released Thursday evening by the ASD.

ASD leaders said they welcome parent input and encouraged them to be part of the district’s community engagement process through a neighborhood advisory council currently reviewing Aspire’s application to convert Sheffield to a charter.

The council, they said, “is asking tough, thoughtful questions of Aspire Public Schools regarding their Application for School Transformation and vision for what a partnership with Sheffield Elementary could look like. We have also surveyed dozens of Sheffield parents. We feel confident that we will be able to make a thoughtful decision about potential conversion of Sheffield, inclusive of neighborhood voices, in early December.”

Sheffield stakeholders line the street in front of their school during Thursday's protest.
PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Sheffield stakeholders line the street in front of their school during Thursday’s protest.

The Sheffield protest was organized by the school’s parent-teacher organization but purposefully mobilized parents — not the educators who likely would lose their jobs in a charter conversion — in an effort to demonstrate grassroots parental support of the school’s efforts.

Sheffield’s protest was the second in as many weeks at ASD-targeted schools. Last week, dozens of community members gathered outside of Raleigh Egypt Middle School to call attention to the gains underway there.

The ASD, created under state law in 2010 to turn around chronically underperforming schools, currently oversees 27 Memphis schools. While its schools’ test scores are far from reaching the district’s ambitious goals, the ASD has been lauded by state and local leaders for creating a sense of urgency to improve schools whose scores have languished for decades.

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