New York

Back to normal for the Panel for Educational Policy

After the first meeting of the citywide school board packed Tweed last month, it was a return to normal last night, as the board unanimously approved all of the contracts up for discussion before a thinly-populated crowd.

The main items of interest for the panel were the new contracts for the city schools’ vending machine suppliers. The vending contracts have received much attention in recent days because they are part of the education department’s initiative to get healthier foods into the schools, efforts that have also included restrictions on school bake sales. The contracts are also being closely scrutinized because they replace the city’s controversial no-bid contract with Snapple, which expired in August.

The panel approved the vending contracts as part of an omnibus vote that also included approval of more than 30 contracts in all, including agreements with a number of special education service and teacher professional development service providers, as well as a centralized source for schools to purchase discounted performing arts event tickets.

The contracts were widely expected to be approved, but the meeting did offer a few interesting tidbits:

  • DOE officials said that they hoped that the vending contracts will drive soft drink and snack vendors to develop healthier products. “We’d like to help create the new normal,” said David Ross of the the department’s Division of Contracts and Purchasing. Education department spokesman Will Havemann said that goal was still aspirational, and that the final lists of drinks and snacks that will be vended in the machines is still being finalized. The contract nutritional guidelines, which were endorsed by a representative from the city health department last night, allow only low-calorie, naturally-sweetened, and either caffeine-free or non-carbonated beverages.
  • Examples of snack foods that meet the education department’s nutritional guidelines include: reduced fat Triscuits; Baked Lay’s or Ruffles potato chips; Quaker “chewy 25% less sugar” chocolate chip granola bars; a variety of Nature’s Valley granola bar flavors; a variety of Del Monte canned fruit in 100% juice; General Mills Cheerios and Total Whole Wheat cereals; as well as more simple offerings like medium-sized apples or small- and medium-sized bananas. At the meeting, critics of the new bake sale regulations charged that prohibiting the sale of home-baked goods gives the corporate vendors of these snacks a monopoly in the school buildings.
  • In business unrelated to the new snack vending contracts, Chancellor Joel Klein announced that the long-awaited RAND Corporation study on the performance of third and fifth graders affected by Mayor Bloomberg’s change in promotion policy will be released on October 15. The panel will have time to review the study’s conclusions before voting on the new proposal to expand his retention policies to all tested grades, the Chancellor said.
  • And a group of varsity girls soccer players and their coaches came to the meeting to protest the education department’s decision to switch the girls’ soccer season from the spring to the fall. Teams have reported trouble mustering full teams because of schedule conflicts resulting from the switch, but the players reported more troubles as well: the girls’ teams now have to share limited field space with the boys’ teams, which creates schedule challenges that necessitate playing games on weekends and booking double- and triple-header games. Those scheduling challenges, in turn, are leading to exhaustion and injury for the players, they said. The playing schedule switch happened as a result of a deal brokered between the DOE and the New York Civil Liberties Union in January. The NYCLU had threatened the education department with a lawsuit unless they made the switch, arguing that moving the soccer season to the fall allowed female players to play on travel teams in the spring, as male players frequently do, and thus equalize their access to college soccer recruiters.

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