State pressuring city for improvement plans, to partial response

State officials have grown anxious that the city won’t make a deadline to apply for $400 million in federal grants to improve failing schools.

Education Commissioner John King registered his anxiety in a letter last week to Marc Sternberg, head of the city Department of Education’s portfolio planning office. In an email, King wrote that the city has had months to finalize its plans for the grants, known as School Improvement Grants, and he wanted enough time to review the proposals before he approves them. That must happen before the end of the month.

King said he wanted to see the city’s plans by yesterday. The city responded by submitting a key section of the application: an explanation of how it plans to phase out 12 schools deemed “persistently lowest achieving” by the state.

According to details of the plan, released today, the city requested a total of $5.1 million to replace the schools with 17 smaller ones – or $300,000 per school. Five of the new schools opened this year and the rest are scheduled to open over the next two school years. (A list of the planned schools and their locations is below.)

The money will be used to ease the transition as low-performing schools phase out and new ones open in their place. The list includes only new schools, not schools that are already open, but will be moved into the buildings where phase-outs occur.

The plans come after months of wavering on the city’s application. “We have been limited in our ability to review NYC’s application because you have either submitted place holders for certain portions of the application or you have informed us that what you have submitted is evolving and will be resubmitted,” King wrote in his email to Sternberg.

The phase-out plans don’t entirely satisfy King’s request, however. “We have not yet received that completed application, ” said SED spokesman Jonathan Burman.

The application is to qualify for a slice of the $700 million in Race To The Top federal funds that New York State won last year. All districts in the state – especially those with low-performing schools – are required to submit detailed plans for how they would carry out reforms the state promised in its Race To The Top bid.

The city’s indecision on what to do with its “persistently lowest achieving” schools has been overshadowed by another still-up-in-the-air component of the federal grant application. The application requires the city and its teachers union to come to an agreement on teacher evaluations. Those negotiations are ongoing but neither side has signaled that an agreement is near.

Spokeswoman Natalie Ravitz acknowledged that the dwindling timeframe was “sensitive” but declined to comment further. She called the ongoing conversation with union officials “productive.”

There’s more than money on the line. The UFT and NAACP has filed a lawsuit against the DOE’s plan to close of 22 schools, including the 12 listed in the application. Union lawyers argue that without state approval, no school closures should be allowed to move forward.

Here’s the complete email from King to Sternberg:


As you are aware, SED has been informed by USED that it is their expectation that NY will make SIG 1003(g) awards by July 31st. You also are aware that we have provided you extended time and flexibility to finalize your applications. To this point, we have been limited in our ability to review NYC’s application because you have either submitted place holders for certain portions of the application or you have informed us that what you have submitted is evolving and will be resubmitted. Accordingly, to ensure that SED has sufficient time to review your application, I am requesting that NYCDOE submit a completed application package, including your  plans for the phasing in and phasing out of schools, that fully describes the intervention models that will be implemented at each school by no later than C.O.B on July 7. This submission should constitute your final application as you would like for it to be reviewed.

Please call me if you have any questions.



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