State’s smallest school district going K-5

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Agate elementary school teacher Megan Donnellon supervises kindergarteners, first graders and second graders - and sometimes the school's lone third-grader.

The school board of the tiny 26-student Agate school district on Thursday surrendered to the apparently inevitable, voting to close the district’s middle and high school and operate only its K-5 elementary school starting next year.

The older students will be sent to schools in surrounding districts, though school officials have yet to work out the details about how to get them there, since transportation is a huge issue in the rural eastern plains area.

“The choices came down to two: we could either afford to operate just the elementary school for a few years and see what happens to the economy, or we could just fold up,” said board chairman Lyndon Burnett.

“The choice really made itself. We can keep five or six people employed, or we could unemploy 16. This way, we can maintain a presence in the town of Agate, and that’s the choice we decided to make.”

Burnett said Superintendent Kendra Ewing was told to start looking into ways to make the K-5 program in Agate more innovative, possibly adding hours or days. The school currently is on a four-day week.

“We’ll start thinking about what next year will look like,” Burnett said. “That needs to be our focus now. We think we can put an innovative, good program together for our little kids, keep serving our smallest ones. And we’ll give the older kids the opportunity to be in other districts, which can offer them more opportunities too. So it’s a win/win for everybody, though it’s not ideal.”

The district currently employs eight teachers, most of them serving the middle and high school students. Those jobs, he said, will go away.

“But we have good teachers, and I hope they can all find other employment. I know some of them already have,” he said.

Agate’s elementary school currently has nine students in grades K-5, and projections for next year are 9 to 12 children, Burnett said.

“But until the kids register, you never know. If the price of gas goes up, we may lose another family.”

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.