IPS board supportive of plan for 2 high schools, but Cosby has doubts

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
George Washington High School.

Most of the Indianapolis Public School Board tonight cheered a plan that keeps IPS in control over two of its high schools while working with the state and a consultant to improve them, even with a $2.1 million price tag.

But at least one board member had concerns about the district’s proposal, which the school board will vote on Thursday.

Board member Gayle Cosby said she is worried that the contract will result in a more fragmented school district by creating separate governing boards for schools under the state’s new “transformation zone.”

There should be more community engagement before such an undertaking, she said.

“I always prefer to get the community involved on the front end rather than the back end,” Cosby said. “There were some clear parallels between the transformation zone work and what you could define as decentralization. I don’t have 100 percent clarity on that issue, but there are some murky points in the scope of work.”

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee pitched the plan for IPS to work with Boston-based Mass Insight to create transformation zones for George Washington and Northwest high schools, a school improvement approach that groups troubled schools and schools that feed into them with a goal of identifying struggling students early and giving more power to principals.

Unlike the state takeover, a process that has severed other schools from district control, IPS would remain in control of, and responsible for, the schools — something that Ferebee has pushed state leaders to permit more widely since taking charge of the district in 2013.

“Two years ago, the only course was for the state to take over more and more of the IPS schools,” board member Sam Odle said. “Now, with what Dr. Ferebee has negotiated with the state … IPS isn’t losing control of any more schools. We’re getting additional state resources to help us improve those schools.”

The company’s plan for the two schools proposes that all staff members in transformation zone schools to reapply for their positions and to work under a “modified collective bargaining agreement.”

Ferebee said that is not part of the plan, or at least not yet. But he noted that increasing autonomy for schools throughout the district is a newly defined priority for the school board.

“I wouldn’t say it changes anything materially,” Ferebee said.

If the contract is approved, Mass Insight’s work will start at George Washington High School and Northwest High School starting next fall. Cosby said she was concerned the district might not have enough oversight of its work.

The debate comes as state policymakers rethink how the state should treated the state’s lowest scoring schools.

The transformation zone model originated in Evansville. The Indiana Department of Education has also tried pairing IPS schools that repeated have been rated an F have with outside consultants as “lead partners,” but that has met with little success.

IPS has gone through several failed relationships with lead partners, causing Ferebee to ask the state board last year to drop the concept entirely. The state board responded by letting IPS act as its own lead partner for one school and by assigning Denver-based Marzano Research Laboratories to work with two other high schools.

State takeover also has been rife with problems. The state board voted last week to let IPS regain management of Arlington High School after months of debate over what would happen to the Indianapolis high school since its state-assigned operator, the charter network Tindley Accelerated Schools, announced last year it couldn’t afford to run the school anymore.

Ferebee said he prefers the transformation zone model to state takeover or lead partners.

“This model that we’re proposing where the district takes the lead in working with schools that have been underperforming is a more favorable model,” Ferebee said.

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