New York

Are "culturally focused" schools worth watching?

Today, the Daily News reported that backers of a proposed charter school that would focus on Hebrew language and culture have already ruled out the possibility of trying to secure space in a public school building. Most charter schools in the city are housed in existing DOE buildings, but as the DOE has opened more and more schools, both charter and non-charter, existing public schools have put up battles over having to share space. Any charter school operators with the financial wherewithal to contract their own space would eliminate some headache by doing so.

In addition, backers of the Hebrew-language school are surely thinking already about how to avoid the problems that have plagued the Khalil Gibran International Academy since before that school opened in 2007. The two schools with which the DOE assigned Khalil Gibran, an Arabic-themed non-charter middle school in Brooklyn, to share space put up a serious fight, with some opponents veiling their racism only thinly or not at all. This fall, Khalil Gibran is being moved to a different school — PS 287, an elementary school with declining enrollment near the Brooklyn Navy Yard — and the antagonism resurfaced briefly. All of this commotion was no doubt distracting from the already difficult tasks of teaching and learning.

On the other hand, intentionally isolating the proposed school from existing schools heightens the impression that the school presents no church-state conflicts. In fact, the expansion of themed schools in New York and elsewhere has created situations where the line between church and state can appear blurred. In Minnesota, the state department of education recently investigated the Tarek ibn Ziyad Charter Academy, which has many Muslim students, and found that it “generally complied” with federal rules about the separation of church and state. The Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune recently ran the transcript of an illuminating discussion among several charter school operators from the Twin Cities area, where a vibrant charter school culture includes several schools that serve students of predominantly one religious or ethnic group. In the discussion, charter school operators describe how they negotiate the line between teaching religion and teaching about religion. They also expound on their thoughts about the benefits of educational environments centered around a particular culture.

Said the operator of Friends of Ascension charter schools, which launched in a Catholic church with a “classical curriculum”:

With regard to segregation, if a school were established with a Western European focus, that would create an outcry. But there is no denying the achievement gap involving students of color. Research indicates that single-gender schools improve academic results. Similarly, results of culturally focused schools are worth watching. If they eliminate or reduce the achievement gap, who would say that’s not a great thing? …

Saying that “culturally focused schools” — here, clearly a euphemism for “culturally segregated,” given the contrast with single-gender schools mentioned immediately before — are “worth watching” is appealing, but it isn’t supported by evidence. In fact, all of the evidence we have shows that schools that are segregated by race and class are associated with a number of negative outcomes for students, both educational and non-academic. Themed and charter schools are often successful in generating high test scores (although the chaos at Khalil Gibran in its first year suggests high test scores may be unlikely there). But it’s hard to extrapolate from that that the schools’ cultural themes actually contributed to their success. Without careful evaluation of what leads to success in “culturally focused schools,” it’s possible for them to be used as a screen for those who prefer to see schools remain racially, culturally, and economically segregated.

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