in the zone

An offbeat school gets funds and a push to try something new

Maria Clausen, a special education teacher at New Design High School, works with students on laptop computers provided by the iZone program.

Teachers at New Design High School have long tried to conduct familiar tasks in new ways. They write announcements in graffiti chalk in the hallways, maintain a freestanding “pond” inside the science lab, and ask students to fashion outfits out of newspaper in a design class.

But this year, innovation is a second job for New Design’s teachers. As one of 26 schools participating in the Department of Education’s iZone360 initiative this year, the quirky high school on Manhattan’s Seward Park Campus is getting extra funding to let teachers test out homegrown strategies to boost student achievement.

iZone360 is the smallest slice of the DOE’s two-year-old Innovation Zone, which expanded from 80 schools last year to 163 this year, but it offers the most flexibility. The zone’s two other divisions offer online learning and small-scale pilot projects. In contrast, schools in iZone 360 are encouraged to rethink every aspect of their existence, from their schedules to how they use space to the way that teachers work together.

A month into its first year as an iZone 360 school, New Design is using the $30,000 it received to pay teachers overtime to coach students one-on-one; host weekly brainstorming sessions, called “beehives”; and methodically document their lesson plans and deliver feedback to students online using an organizational tool called Teacher Dashboard.

The point, according to Principal Scott Conti, is to let teachers make their own attempts at figuring out how to promote innovation by giving teachers extra pay to imagine alternative teaching practices — and then try them in the classroom.

“The DOE has said, ‘We don’t know what you’re going to create, but we’re going to support you. Go out and do it, make mistakes,’” he said. “The city is saying through the iZone that the traditional model of education that dominates the system no longer works.”

Shana Covel, a coach who works with four iZone360 schools, said the DOE selected schools with strong leadership and a culture of staff collaboration to participate in the Innovation Zone, which was funded with a mix of Race to the Top money, private donations and $10 million in city taxes.

iZone “gives teachers time and space to think through what they’re doing, teach deeply and look at 21st-century skills,” she said. “At lot of schools talk about it, but iZone is giving them resources to get it done: partners, time, access to laptops.”

Covel facilitates meetings between teams of teachers after school and connects principals with organizations and other school leaders who can support their innovation ideas.

At New Design, Covel’s current task is to help teachers implement a student-coaching project, where teachers review study skills with students one-on-one. It’s different from a tutoring program, she explained, because the coaching is about showing each student how to set his or her individual goals, not about reviewing content.

Other schools in the iZone, she said, are testing non-traditional class schedules; the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School, for example, is rearranging the school day so that classes meet for longer blocks of time, but at fewer times per month. Another school, Bronx Writing Academy, is extending its school day and school year. Other schools are focusing on making their assignments more rigorous. At University Heights High School, for example, teachers are learning how to assign more projects to students.

“This adds a big accountability piece to our work,” said Maria Clausen, a special education teacher at New Design, who meets regularly with other teachers in a brainstorming group called a “beehive” to review her lesson plans and receive feedback. “Normally, when we lesson plan we do it for ourselves and for our students in the moment. Now in the beehive initiative, we are being asked to talk about it, and keep our data and our records.”

The iZone has also brought new technology to many of the participating schools, including New Design.

Some of New Design students’ assignments don’t seem all that different from what their peers in non-Innovation Zone schools are doing. In a ninth-grade life sciences class on a recent afternoon, students used laptops from one of the school’s iZone-funded computer carts to take photos of themselves and upload them to blogs, where they will be documenting their science lessons for the year.

But if it’s hard to tell exactly what effect the school’s iZone participation will have, said science teacher David Rothauser, that’s because true innovation will take time.

“It’s about making a mess, trying new things. It feels primordial,” Rothauser said. “When you’re dealing with 100 students, the unknowns are powerful and can be scary, so often you see teachers clinging to ineffective practices because it’s what they know, and they don’t have the support to invent new ways.”

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