engagement party

Walcott outlines new initiatives to involve parents in schools

Outside, an organizer lobbies security to let protesting parents inside; In the auditorium, the audience was far more subdued than last night.

The Department of Education will replicate other cities’ parent training programs and start measuring how well schools engage families, Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced tonight.

In his first-ever policy address last month, Walcott unveiled an initiative to help the city’s long-struggling middle schools. Tonight, he turned his attention to another weak spot in the department’s record: keeping parents involved.

Addressing parent leaders at an RSVP-only event where he was joined by Jesse Mojica, head of the department’s oft-renamed family engagement office, Walcott outlined a plan that he said would boost parent involvement in city schools. He said the department would hire outside groups to run training workshops for parents who want to get involved, ask more from parent coordinators, and put more information for parents online, at a new portion of the DOE website for families.

Walcott also said the city had developed standards for family involvement that a small number of schools would test before they are rolled out citywide. Ultimately, he said, the city plans to measure schools on how well they communicate with parents and make them feel welcome.

The speech comes after years of complaints that DOE decision-making has shut parents out — and months after elections for district parent councils went so badly that they had to be redone. Walcott acknowledged problems with the elections and promised that the next time they happen, in 2013, the process would go more smoothly.

But he did not open the door to giving parents a larger role in setting city education policy.

“I want to state clearly what we mean by successful family engagement in New York City schools: Family engagement means informing and involving parents to get students on track for college and careers,” he said before launching into the new initiatives.

A centerpiece is a new training program for parents and parent coordinators that would start in the 2012-2013 school year.

“We’re very serious about having an academy,” Walcott told reporters after the speech. “And we believe in this. We see where it works in other cities and people have talked to use about that.”

The model the DOE will likely pursue is the “parent university” that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., school district operates. Walcott did not specify a price tag for the initiative but said funding would likely come from both public and private funds.

Reception to the speech was mild compared to the first event of “Parents as Partners Week,” a curriculum talk Tuesday night where protesters drowned out Walcott and other officials. Tonight, parent coordinators, CEC members, and PTA members at the RSVP-only speech offered mostly polite applause and the occasional isolated grumbling.

“I don’t think he addressed any of the deep dark issues that parents are concerned about,” said Doug Stern, a member of the Community Education Council for Manhattan’s District 1.

But Stern said he was impressed with Walcott’s message about involving parents in new curriculum standards and was touched by a story Walcott told about his parents’ early death.

“I think it was touching to see that he’s not that cold,” Stern said. “I guess he’s trying to connect more with parents on that level.”

Some attendees offered a harsher critique. Santos Crespo, a local president for the DC-37 labor union, said he questioned Walcott’s pledge of support for parent coordinators when 66 of them were among 737 DC-37 employees laid off earlier this month.

“What about the parent coordinators you just laid off?” he asked. “Are the parent coordinators still going to be optional in the high schools if they’re getting all this support? … To us he has no credibility.”

Outside the Park West Educational Campus, where the event took place, about two dozen protesters, many of them parents from schools that face closure, were shut out because they had not signed up to attend.

The spacious auditorium was only sparsely filled. About 650 parents had registered to attend, according to a DOE spokesman, but many did not show up. Hundreds of seats were available.

That was of little consequence to about a dozen DOE officials and school safety agents who stood outside and turned away the protesters. They couldn’t come in, the officials said, because the event was not open to the public.

“Let us in,” said Sherry Dorwish, a parent from P.S. 256 in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, which could face closure. She was among several parents with signs who did not sign up but waited for about an hour outside. “There’s only a handful of parents out here. If there are empty seats in there, why not let us in?”

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