notes from the field

Reporter’s notebook: In the blink of an eye, a new school is given the OK

The Denver Public Schools board vote to open the Banneker Jemison STEM Academy happened so fast that the school’s founding executive director Tunda Asega and his family almost missed it.

“Congratulations,” the district’s innovation officer Alyssa Whitehead-Bust told Asega’s six children, who crowded around her in the boardroom’s lobby shortly after the board voted on Thursday. “You have a new school.”

The children cheered and jumped up and down.

A few minutes later, outside the district’s headquarters, another adult in Asega’s group could hardly contain her shock.

“That’s it?” she asked. “Just like that? We really have a school?”

More nods and smiles of happy disbelief.

The Asega clan nearly missed the vote not because they were late to the meeting, but because their charter application’s approval was stacked in a lengthy consent agenda with more than a dozen items that the board approved in one fell swoop quickly after the meeting came to order.

This is how most new charter schools open in Denver: early mornings and late night nights are poured into lengthy charter school applications for months — sometime years. There are meetings and interviews with district staff; emails are fired back and forth; there are revisions to the charter, meeting with perspective families; and — maybe — an occasional public backlash.

And yet, in a mere moment, the city’s Board of Education vote decides ‘yea’ or ‘nay.’

“It’s like training for the Olympics,” Asega said. “You prepare, practice, drill, analyze, anticipate. You stay up long hours working as a team. Then, the gun goes off and you put everything out there.”

Preparing the school’s charter has been “the hardest thing we’ve ever done,” Asega said. “It’s the fulfillment of a longtime dream.”

He and many of his board members grew up in the city’s historically black northeast neighborhoods, where the school will be located at the King M. Trimble Building near Curtis Park.

The school’s model, according to district documents, will rely heavily on the Core Knowledge curriculum, with an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM for short.

Asega and his board believe the students of the near northeast — like many poor students of color across the nation — have been underserved by the STEM movement. And if those students do ever come across a STEM program — most likely at the middle or high school level — they’re so far behind they drop out.

“We’re going to prepare students for STEM programs so they’re ready to achieve, succeed, and thrive in high school and beyond,” Asega said.

But he still has a lot of work to do.

For the charter to go into effect, the Banneker Jemison team must prove there is enough interest to fill 80 percent of its seats by Nov. 1, revise its budget, develop an evaluation tool for Asega, and provide evidence it has resolved a conflict of interest between a board member and the school’s proposed principal.

If the charter can meet that criteria, the school will open in 2015, with another 17 schools the Denver board has approved. Banneker Jemison plans to open with 150 students its first year and grow to 300.

“We know that community well,” he said. “There’s been so many ups and downs. We’re coming back to provide our gifts to that community that supported us. There’s a spirit to right some of the challenges that exist.”

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.