closure season

Struggling Brownsville schools call on DOE for more support

Chancellor Dennis Walcott responds to Terrell Tomer's questions at a town hall meeting in Brownsville, Brooklyn.

Scores of parents, children, and school staff from District 23 packed the auditorium of Brownsville’s P.S. 156 Wednesday to tell Chancellor Dennis Walcott that their schools don’t deserve to be shut down.

The meeting comes at the start of Walcott’s first closure and co-location season as chancellor. Department of Education officials are deciding which schools to close from a shortlist released in September. Decisions are likely to be made by early next month and a public hearing on the closures will take place early in 2012.

Many people speaking out at the meeting came from three schools that are on the shortlist for closure. Community members from two low-performing schools that share a building, the General D. Chappie James Elementary and Middle School of Science, and P.S. 298 protested before the meeting began.

Brownsville’s neighborhood schools have been in the news lately for a host of problems: low test scores; gang violence, when a parent was killed and a student shot outside P.S. 298 two weeks ago; and facilities issues, when P.S. 156 and I.S. 392 were evacuated twice earlier this week after smoke and odors were detected.

But speakers kept the focus of the town hall on the potential district school closures and charter school openings that have been floated for the neighborhood.

Many parents decried a lack of supplies and resources at their schools, saying the schools need more support if they are to serve students in the high-needs neighborhood. Teachers at the Chappie schools said their facilities are run down, classrooms are crowded, and violence among students sometimes makes the teachers fear for their safety. Mavis Yon, a fifth-grade teacher and union leader at P.S. 298, said gang violence wracked the community.

“Why are we not good enough to get computers? To get wi-fi? Why are we not doing these things?” Natasha Capers, whose two sons attend P.S. 298, said during the protest before the meeting. “Because it’s easier to say these children are a failure. District 23 repeatedly gets shortchanged.”

Walcott tread a fine line between defending the DOE’s shortlist of struggling schools that could be closed and cautioning parents that no closure decisions have yet been made.

“As we look at the figures, the schools are just not performing well,” he said. “We have to find constructive ways to improve the school community. I will not put us in a position of hurting our schools in the long run for just responding to you tonight.”

Sue Hackshaw, a parent from the Chappie schools, asked Walcott if he would promise to visit the schools before deciding whether to close them. Walcott responded, “No. I’m not making that commitment,” prompting some audience members to boo and Hackshaw to leave the auditorium.

Diane Jennings, the grandmother of three chldren at P.S. 298, complained that her school is missing a librarian, and therefore should not be blamed for low reading-scores. But Walcott said that was no excuse — particularly as new curriculum standards emphasize nonfiction reading and analytical writing.

“A lot of reading should be taking place in the classroom, and a lot of reading should be taking place in the home,” he said. “What we’re talking about with Common Core is a different type of reading. A library, though important, is not the critical feature. It’s the books, it’s the teaching, the reading at home, and the use of Common Core texts.”

Several attendees also expressed concern that new charter schools would open in the neighborhood, which already has five charter schools.

“Why do you want to shut down schools and open charter schools?” Terrell Tomer, 12, asked at the beginning of the question-and-answer session with Walcott. He said Kings Collegiate Charter School has more Smartboards and computers than his school, the Middle School for Art and Philosophy, creating tensions in the building.

Walcott responded, “It’s not one versus the other. I’m a big believer in giving parents the option to choose.”

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

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”