Queens charter schools enter the fray with information campaign

Spurred by a series of meetings held by Queens’ borough president, charter school administrators, parents and students are gathering at The Renaissance Charter School in Queens to dispel “misinformation” about their schools in a discussion on Wednesday night. Queens is far from the center of the city’s charter school debate, which has been raging in Manhattan and Brooklyn, but with the opening of two new charters in as many years, and increased attention to the issue city-wide, some parents and elected officials have voiced their opposition to the schools.

Nicholas Tishuk, the Director of Programs and Accountability at Renaissance and the organizer of the event, said that the discussion is the beginning of an “information campaign” targeted at charter school critics. Principals of two other Queens’ charter schools, VOICE and OWN, will participate in the panel.

Tishuk has been attending Queens Borough President Helen Marshall’s monthly Advisory Board meetings, where he said charter schools dominate the conversation. (Marshall said in February she has ” fought against charter schools.”) He invited some of the most outspoken critics at Marshall’s meetings to Wednesday’s discussion, hoping to show them that charter schools  aren’t “this big bad thing.”

“We’re all mom and pop schools here,” Tishuk said. “We’re all single-standing schools that are not ‘invading’ communities.” Tishuk wants to address complaints that charter schools take away funding from regular schools, aren’t connected to communities, and counsel out “problem kids”—none of which apply to Queens’ schools, he says.

Queens will have six charter schools next fall, including the city’s biggest, Our World Neighborhood Charter School. VOICE charter school started in 2008, and Growing Up Green, in Long Island City, opens this fall. VOICE is using a Department of Education school location for now, while the borough’s other charter schools occupy their own space. In Brooklyn and Manhattan, charter schools taking over public school space is a hot-button issue, one that has mostly been avoided in Queens.

“The same kinds of misperceptions about what charters are and their public nature are present in Queens as they are in other boroughs,” NYC Center for Charter School Excellence CEO James Merriman said. “This is a battle that charters have been fighting for a number of years, and I think that one of the most important things that we need to do is get out there and tell our story.”

Steve Zimmerman, the chairman of the board of Our World Neighborhood (OWN) charter school in Queens, said that he thinks charter opposition in the borough is more political than grassroots at this point.
“I don’t see pushback from parents, I see pushback from interest groups and politicians,” said Zimmerman, who calls himself a somewhat “reluctant” charter advocate. He added that Catherine Nolan, their local Assemblywoman who is trying to place limits on the charter school certification process, looked at OWN for her own child to attend. “Parents are always going to want what’s best for their kid,” he said.

Marge Kolb, an outspoken critic of charter schools and the president of Queens District 24’s Parent-Teacher Association President’s Council, said charter schools drain enthusiasm and energy away from normal public schools in other boroughs, and she doesn’t want that happening in Queens. About two years ago, she said, District 24’s CEC turned down an application from CIMA for a charter school over concerns that they wouldn’t guarantee to fill all their seats with District 24 students or be able to find their own space.

In Brooklyn, where charter schools and district schools have clashed over space, the Borough President Marty Markowitz hosted a discussion with representatives from both charter and district schools last week with the goal of finding “ways to work together.” “As we saw from this discussion, district schools, charter schools and parents have the same agenda—ensuring that all our young Brooklynites and New Yorkers reach the zenith of their potential,” Markowitz said in a statement.

“It marked the beginning of lifting the veil of secrecy to make the charter school system more transparent,” the president of the Citywide Council on High Schools, Valerie Armstrong-Barrows, said in the statement.

Renaissance is facing a budget shortfall for next year, so the event, which will be held at the school from 6 to 8 pm this Wednesday, is also meant to raise awareness of the school’s financial issues. A light dinner and childcare will be provided, Tishuk 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 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