New lease on life?

Parents want their struggling school to get more time to improve

I.S. 171 Parents at an "early engagement" meeting.

Parents at a school they say was left to fail by a former principal are hoping that a new administration can keep the school doors open.

After receiving a failing grade on its progress report this year, I.S. 171 in Cypress Hills is one of 20 schools the Department of Education is publicly considering for closure. But at a meeting to discuss the school’s future Wednesday evening, parents, students and alumni said the school shouldn’t be judged based on its past performance because new school leadership has already begun to turn things around.

First-year principal Barbara Kendall was hired a week before the year began after former principal Yolanda Fustanio resigned at the end of the last school year. Parents and students complained that under Fustanio’s leadership, enforcement of the school’s discipline code eroded so badly that the school had become unsafe.

“The hallways were like traffic in Times Square,” a sixth-grade girl said at the meeting.

Shamona Kirkland, a District 19 Community Education Council member whose son is in seventh grade at I.S. 171, said Fustanio had turned into an absentee principal by the end of her tenure.

District 19 Superintendent Rosemary Mills gives opening remarks at I.S. 171

“I saw her maybe once or twice the whole school year,” Kirkland said. “I had to keep reminding myself what her name was every time I saw her.”

The comments came at an “early engagement” meeting with Rosemary Mills, District 19’s superintendent, in the school’s auditorium. It was part of a series of meetings that the DOE is organizing for each of the low-performing schools before it decides whether to shutter them. Two other meetings at I.S. 171 included officials from the United Federation of Teachers and the school’s internal leadership team.

The meeting with Mills attracted about 120 people, many of whom had the meeting interpreted for them through headsets. A large percentage of the 800-plus student body is Hispanic and 23 percent are classified as English language learners.

Mills told the audience that their school would either be phased out — one grade at a time — or would adopt a intervention plan that targets the school’s greatest weaknesses. Then Mills opened the floor to parents and asked them for feedback on what worked at the school and what did not.

Some parents who spoke said the school needed greater parent engagement and others lauded the after-school programming, which included theater productions of “In The Heights” and “Rent” in recent years.

But many of them noted that since the school year began, they had noticed a vast improvement in their children’s work habits and school culture. Most of them credited Kendall.

“She told us that as a team we can work together and she made us feel like we were part of the team,” Kirkland said.

Kendall said that when she started at I.S. 171 on Sept. 1, her first order of business was to reinstate a sense of order. She assigned school aides to closely monitor the halls and implemented a policy that requires teachers to lock classroom doors when their class is in session so that, she said, “in any instant, children are accounted for.”

“There was a major issue of safety so once I got here and I realized I had to set that tone and discipline,” said Kendall who previously worked as an assistant principal for 10 years at Robert A. Van Wyck Middle School in Queens.

Despite the vote of confidence, Kendall remains an interim principal and the process to hire her for the permanent position begins next month, Mills said.

A decision on the school’s future will likely come in early December.

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