Setting priorities

Here’s what Memphians say a high-quality school should have

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Westwood High School PTA President Felecia Bean-Barnes talks about education assets during a community meeting in the Whitehaven area of Memphis.

For Felecia Bean-Barnes, curriculum is key.

A parent and president of Westwood High School’s PTA, she’s observed that some Shelby County schools offer advanced placement curriculum or courses in Japanese, for instance, while others don’t.

“We don’t have all the classes at our school that we wish she had,” Bean-Barnes told district leaders at a recent community meeting seeking input from Memphians on what makes a high-quality school.

community

Another parent at the Whitehaven-area meeting quickly chimed in. “We need a foreign language program that starts in elementary school to get these kids college-ready. … We’re trying to do 12 years of school in four years. We’ve got to get on the ball.”

The comments were gleaned during nine community meetings held by Shelby County Schools in the last week, capped by three gatherings Monday night. District staff members facilitated the sessions and documented feedback to gauge community priorities as leaders prepare to downsize the school system amid years of declining enrollment.

“We have limited resources to work with, so we have to start thinking differently about how we maximize our resources, so all our students have equal opportunities,” Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said in a videotaped message played at the start of each meeting. “That could mean closing, merging or transforming schools in order to create new high-quality options.”

A yearlong facilities study, scheduled for release this fall, will help guide the hard decisions that policymakers say ultimately must hinge on how to improve academic performance. A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions last week about how the community input eventually will intersect with that data to inform decisions about shuttering schools. But facilitators and school board members assured participants that their feedback is critical to the process. (See Chalkbeat’s report on 25 schools at risk.)

Some meetings drew more than 60 people, others just a few handfuls, as many participants cited engaged parents as one attribute of a high-quality school. One teacher suggested reinstituting family resource centers in all schools to provide resources and training for parents to offset challenges related to a mostly impoverished student population.

Participants defined high-quality schools based on up-to-date technology, small class sizes, retention of high-quality teachers, a climate of safety, STEM curriculum, and the availability of after-school tutoring and field trips, among other things.

Meanwhile, facilitators indicated that the district will measure the quality of schools based on three factors: student achievement, student growth and school climate.

Here are some comments shared at various community meetings:

  • “Every school needs a high-quality administrator, one that’s aware of the conditions of the school, knows the neighborhood and has a passion for what they’re doing. It starts with leadership.” —Terri Stephens, sixth-grade world history teacher at Havenview Middle School
  • “I look at test scores because I know (my daughter) needs a challenge. —Amber Currin, parent of a second-grader who participates in CLUE at Grahamwood Elementary School
  • “All schools should have optional programs. We shouldn’t create inferior schools to have better schools. They should be even across the board.” —Claudette Boyd, whose grandchild attends Melrose High School
  • “Everything starts at the top of the school with a strong administration.” — Leonard Smith, retired educator with Memphis City Schools
  • “You have to have strong teachers. You need good leadership. Quality of the teachers is a must.” — Kayla Smith, parent of students at Oakhaven middle and high schools
  • “We need stability in our school system. Many of our children come from an unstable home environment and then we’re sending them to an unstable school environment where we’re not sure whether those schools will stay open. We tell them “relax and learn,” but someday we’re going to learn that school flight is generating panic and fear.” —Vernall Smith, a graduate of Mitchell High School and grandfather of three Mitchell students

The district has invited stakeholders to share additional feedback online.

Chalkbeat reporters Laura Faith Kebede, Caroline Bauman and Grace Tatter contributed to this report.

moving forward

New York City officials: Large-scale school desegregation plan likely coming by June

PHOTO: BRIC TV
Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack, third from left, discussing the city's integration efforts.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised a “bigger vision” to address segregation in New York City schools, but officials have thus far kept details under wraps.

But they’ve been dribbling out some details, most notably a timeline for when a large-scale plan could be released. Officials at a town hall discussion in Brooklyn Thursday night reiterated that a plan would likely be released by June.

We’re “going to propose some new thinking that we have, both about some of the systems that we run and about ways that we can work together locally to make change,” said Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack, who is heading the department’s diversity efforts. “We expect it to come out by the end of the school year.”

BRIC TV host Brian Vines, who moderated the panel co-produced with WNYC, pushed for details. “Is there any one thing that you can at least give us a hint at that’s a concrete measure?” he asked.

But Wallack didn’t take the bait. “What I will say is that we are actually still engaged in conversations like this one, trying to get good ideas about how to move forward,” he said, adding that the education department is talking with educators, parents and schools interested in the issue.

New York City officials have been under pressure to address school segregation after a 2014 report called its schools some of the most racially divided in the country. More recently, debates over how best to change zone lines around schools on the Upper West Side and in Brooklyn have grown heated.

“We have a lot of hard work to do,” Wallack said. “But the mayor and chancellor are deeply committed to that work and to working with all of you to make that happen.”

Correction (Dec. 2, 2016): This story has been corrected to reflect that the town hall event was not the first time officials had described a timeline for releasing a plan.

data points

Six stats that show how black and Latino students in New York City are subjected to disproportionate policing

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Advocates protest school suspension policy.

Arrests, summonses, and serious crimes are all trending downward in city schools, but a new analysis shows black and Latino students continue to be disproportionately subjected to police interventions and handcuffing, even during incidents that aren’t considered criminal.

Those findings come from a New York Civil Liberties Union review of new NYPD statistics on student interactions with regular precinct officers, in addition to their contact with school safety agents posted in schools. Thanks to a city law passed in 2015, this year is the first time those numbers have been publicly released (in previous years, the NYPD only released data on incidents involving school safety agents).

The new statistics add second-quarter data to first-quarter numbers released in July, revealing the persistence of troubling racial disparities over the first half of 2016. Here are six key data points from the NYCLU analysis:

  • In the first six months of the yearabout 91 percent of school-based arrests, and nearly 93 percent of summonses, were issued to black or Latino students (a population that represents nearly 70 percent of the school population).
  • More than 60 percent of all arrests and summonses during the same period were carried out by precinct officers, not school safety agents. “That means precinct-based officers with no specialized training enter schools and arrest children without regard for the impact on school climate,” according to the NYCLU.
  • There have been 1,210 school-related incidents where children were handcuffed in the first half of 2016. Nearly 93 percent involved students who were black or Latino.
  • Between April and July there were 94 incidents where a student showed “signs of emotional distress” and was handcuffed and taken to a hospital for further evaluation. Ninety-seven percent involved students who were black or Hispanic.
  • Over the same period, the city issued 255 “juvenile reports” — which are taken for students who are under 16 and involved in incidents that, if the students were adults, could count as crimes. Ninety-two percent of the reports were issued to black and Latino students. And though only 20 percent of students issued juvenile reports were handcuffed, 100 percent of those restrained were black or Latino.
  • There were 44 “mitigation” incidents, in which a student committed an offense and was handcuffed, but then released by the NYPD to school officials for discipline. All of those students were black or Latino.

You can find the NYCLU’s annual roundup of suspension data here.