Bully pulpit

Mayoral control, Obama: unseen stars at Harlem Charter Night

The crowd at Harlem Charter Night.
The crowd at Harlem Charter Night.

Mayor Bloomberg and Lil Mama cheered charter schools, school choice, and mayoral control of the public schools before a crowd of thousands of parents and students last night.

The mayor and the rapper even shared some tactics. “Do we want more parent choice?” Mayor Bloomberg yelled. “I can’t hear you! Do we want more competition? Do we want better test scores and higher graduation rates?”

Lil Mama was more successful with the call-and-response style. She called “Parent” while the crowd screamed back, “Choice!” “You don’t have to send your child to a regular public school,” the Harlem native said before performing two of her hits, “G-Slide” and “Lip Gloss.” “You can send them to a public charter school.”

While many of the kids seemed most excited to watch Lil Mama perform, a team of volunteers and interns at the pro-mayoral control group Learn NY were on hand to encourage parents to sign a petition supporting mayoral control, and a parade of education officials used the unprecedented crowd size to push their causes. (The legislature will vote on whether to renew the mayor’s control of the public schools in June.)

The Harlem-born rapper Lil Mama performed on stage with charter school students.
The Harlem-born rapper Lil Mama performed on stage with charter school students.

Geoffrey Canada, founder of Harlem Children’s Zone and the chairman of Learn NY, spoke about how, just seven years ago, Harlem schools were the worst-performing in the state. “If people want to know why I support mayoral control, this never happens otherwise,” he told me after his speech, gesturing towards the enormous crowd of enthusiastic students and their parents. He said he’s a big fan of regular public schools as well, but “the issue is we want great education for our children, and if it’s parochial, if its public, if it’s charter—whatever it is, that’s what we’ve go to do for these kids.”

Because space is tight in lotteried charter schools, critics say the schools leave unlucky children in increasingly unsuccessful regular public schools. Bloomberg made one answer to the problem in his speech, saying that 30,000 kids are waiting to enter charter schools. The answer? Build more.

“We’ve got to make sure that the reforms that we made don’t all get rolled back by the politicians this June,” he said.

President Obama was the unseen star of the show. Organizers passed out buttons saying “Obama [heart] Charters,” and Canada played a video clip of the president’s recent education speech, where he declared that caps on charter schools are not “good for our children our economy or our country.”

Chancellor Joel Klein declared that charter schools can deliver on the promise of Brown v. Board of Education. “Unless you are willing to stand up and fight and support public charter schools and parental choice so that every kid has an opportunity for the American dream, we will never, ever be the country we want to be,” he said.

The activist Howard Fuller, who chairs the pro-voucher and pro-charter Black Alliance for Educational Options, said that demanding school choice continues in the spirit of Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, and other black leaders. “Harriet Tubman’s mission was to rescue slaves. Our mission is to rescue children,” he said.

I also spoke to Paul Fucaloro, the director of literacy and math for Harlem Success Academy, who departed slightly from the cheerleading to say that not all charter schools are excellent. “Just because people open schools doesn’t mean they’re going to get the same care and attention to detail that we have,” he told me. “We put our money where our mouth is.”

We’ll post more on parents’ experience at charter night later today.

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 cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

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