Music cutbacks at some IPS schools anger parents

Erin Szalkie’s sixth-grade son James was upset when she dropped him off at school this morning, having just learned that the orchestra program he loves at Indianapolis Public Schools’ Center for Inquiry at School 84 would be cut next year.

Whether the fledgling violinist would continue to learn to play his instrument was suddenly in doubt.

School 84 is one of a handful of IPS elementary schools that would stop offering instrumental music lessons next year as part of a district-wide overhaul of music, art and gym programs aimed at making sure all schools get a full-time teacher in each of those subjects.

But to add full-time teachers at some schools that have only part-time teachers in those subjects, other schools might lose extras, like lessons for kids who play band and orchestra instruments.

Szalkie and others say they learned of the plan from teachers or through Facebook friends, not directly from the district, and they’re angry.

“These programs don’t belong to the school board, they belong to the kids,” Szalkie said. “To have no communication, no explanation and no opportunity to say ‘maybe there’s something else we can do’ … is disappointing.”

If the changes are put in place, each elementary school would have one full-time music teacher. In the past, some schools had a part-time music teacher while others had both a general music teacher and a part-time instrumental music teacher.

Most of IPS’s 48 elementary schools probably won’t notice a change. For many, it might only will mean a music teacher spending a few more hours at school. But for 12 schools, including the Centers for Inquiry, it means fewer teachers.

“The goal is to create a more equitable system where each school has at least one dedicated, full-time music educator,” IPS spokeswoman Kristin Cutler said. “The current system involves many shared educators between several schools.”

The move was also designed to give principals more choice in how to assign staff at their buildings. IPS school board members have made repeated calls for principals to make more choices about how they run their schools.

Schools with high enrollment will have an additional “special area” teacher. Principals can choose what they want that teacher to teach. The also can decide whether the school’s one music teacher will specialize in general music or instrumental music.

Not every music teacher is licensed in both general music and instrumental music. It’s an “incredibly rare skill set” to have both, Szalkie said. Her school principal was left with little choice but to cut the orchestra program. Others probably will face the same difficult choice.

“You’re going to have a general program for every kid,” Szalkie said. “If you’re saying you have the choice, their hands are tied. They have to make a decision that meets every grade level, every kid. It’s not really a choice.”

School board member Gayle Cosby said she was unhappy with the decision. School autonomy should result in more program choices for schools and kids, not fewer, she said.

“We all know that parents base school decisions off of these kinds of offerings,” Cosby said. “Here we are again, making decisions about autonomy without a full understanding of autonomy as a board. I’m concerned that we are once again putting the cart before the horse.”

Szalkie’s son said he wants to take action to protest the decision. Now his mom just has to figure out if she can find a way for him to have lessons outside of school next year.

“He’s planning to start his letter writing camping tonight,” Szalkie said. “I said, ‘You’re old enough. If you don’t agree with what they’re doing, stand up and say something.'”

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