In a first, a charter operator will try to turn around a failing charter

Big block letters announce the entrance to Harlem Day Charter School, but next year they’ll spell Harlem Prep Charter School — a reflection of a charter school authorizer’s decision today to put the school under new management.

For the first time, a charter school network is trying to turn around an already-failing charter school. Last year, when the State University of New York’s Charter School Institute decided to close Harlem Day Charter School due to its low test scores, it solicited applications from charter operators who could reform the school. But there was a catch: whoever agreed to this proposal had to keep all of Harlem Day’s current students rather than starting from scratch with a fresh group of kindergarteners.

The risk was great enough that in a city of charter leaders eager for building space, SUNY’s search turned up only one applicant: the Democracy Prep Public Schools network. Today SUNY officially gave Democracy Prep the go-ahead to take over Harlem Day and reopen it in July with the same students and a different approach.

Democracy Prep Superintendent Seth Andrew currently operates two charters schools — Democracy Prep Charter School (grade 6-10) and Democracy Prep Harlem (grade 6) — and this will be his first experiment with an elementary school.

“Harlem Day had incredibly low class size, tons of adults, one of the highest philanthropy per-pupil rates if not the highest, and a really nice building,” Andrew said today. “So all of the traditional arguments that people make about what’s needed to fix schools: more money, smaller class sizes, more teachers, are just wrong. What you need is better teachers in a rigorous academic program.”

Andrews said he hoped to succeed in turning around Harlem Day and become a “national proof-point” for other charter school operators to model themselves after.

For years, Andrews’ schools have enrolled a handful of Harlem Day students and he said that, with some exceptions, they were often among the least-prepared for middle school. Several of his students, who were at Harlem Day this afternoon and attended the school when they were younger, described it as a fun school, but one lacking in rigor.

Taraun Frontis, an eighth grader at Democracy Prep, said his parents considered pulling him out of Harlem Day when he was in fourth grade, but decided to wait the extra year and find a good middle school.

“At Harlem Day it was a little more free and relaxed. I could easily be distracted and they wouldn’t care really, they thought it wasn’t a big deal,” he said. “After a while, a lot of students started to leave.”

Not all parents would agree with that assessment. Daryl Miller, the father of a fifth grade student at Harlem Day, said the school didn’t need to be closed.

“I think it’s a good school,” he said. “But it can only get better. I think it’s just good that it’s Democracy Prep that’s coming in.”

Harlem Day’s declining enrollment in its later grades means that Andrew is likely to enroll not only a new kindergarten class next year, but will also accept applications from older students in order to fill the school.

In addition to keeping all of the Harlem Day students who decide to stay, Democracy Prep is also taking on all of Harlem Day’s assets, including its building lease.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?

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.