merry-go-round

City unveils algorithm that will assign ATR's to new weekly spots

The Department of Education is preparing for the high volume of new assignments it will have to make starting Tuesday, as Absent Teacher Reserve  teachers are shifted to a new school every single week.

Starting next week, the nearly 1,300 teachers in the ATR pool will report to a fresh school every Monday, an arrangement set in a deal between the city and teachers union to avert teacher layoffs. Teachers enter the pool when their positions are eliminated, usually because of budget cuts or school closures. While some teachers quickly find new positions in the city schools, others do not, and some stay in the pool for years without finding a new position.

A computer algorithm and multiple DOE staffers are tasked with making matches between ATR members to their weekly school placements, DOE officials told reporters today in a telephone briefing. The officials said the process is a work in progress, acknowledging that it may require more time and energy from central office staff and principals than the previous ATR arrangement. Previously, ATR teachers held long-term assignments. The relatively comfortable stability was seen by some as a reason why longstanding members of the pool failed to find new positions.

Union officials explained to skeptical teachers in the ATR pool earlier this week that the arrangement is meant to help them land permanent positions.

DOE officials echoed that explanation. The placements should be seen as a tryout that could easily result in a full-time position, according to Larry Becker, the chief executive officer of the DOE’s human resources division. 

But a month into the school year, there are fewer open positions than there are ATR members, and the department does not expect that the pool will be cleared, only reduced, Becker said. He said that there are about 550 open positions in the core academic subjects, the ones where hiring is most likely to be taking place right now.

Each week, a computer algorithm will assign teachers a new placement. The algorithm will take into account teachers’ license areas, the district where they last held a permanent position, and schools’ needs. A team of four or five DOE staffers will monitor the placements, Becker said. Becker signaled that more staff members might be brought on to the project if the city’s hiring freeze is lifted.

The computer programming was a one-time cost and the salaries amount to just a fraction of the $40 million in projected savings in substitute costs, officials said.

Becker said guidance counselors and teachers already filling in as long-term substitutes would not be reassigned weekly because doing do would harm students, Becker said. But he said most students wouldn’t experience any upheavals from the ATR deal because they would likely have had different teachers substituting in their classes each week anyway.

One unanswered question is who will evaluate teachers in the pool if they do not have a single direct supervisor over the course of the year. DOE officials are still considering the issue, but it is likely that principals, district officials, and department officials would jointly issue the ratings, Becker said.

At meetings for ATR teachers held by the teachers union this week, United Federation of Teachers representative Amy Arundell assured teachers that they would not be evaluated based solely on one week of work at a school. But several teachers who were assigned to temporary positions outside of their speciality voiced concerns that they could be evaluated while teaching classes or student populations that they are not licensed to teach.

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