strength in numbers

City plan to shrink Wadleigh draws vocal and official opposition

Ninth-grader Geronimo Miranda joins sixth-graders Ariyelle Ceasar, Tiane Jackson, Cheyanne Young and Nia Manerville in describing Wadleigh Middle School's positive qualities at a school truncation hearing Jan. 26.

A who’s who of elected officials and Harlem leaders turned out Thursday to defend the Wadleigh Secondary School of Performing Arts against the Department of Education’s plan to close its middle school.

About 200 parents, students, activists, and staff packed the school’s auditorium Thursday evening for a public hearing on the proposal. Just before, officials who included City Councilman Robert Jackson, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, State Sen. Bill Perkins, and Comptroller John Liu all held court in the packed lobby of the Harlem campus. Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and the city’s NAACP chief, Hazel Dukes, also spoke at the hearing.

They said the city was giving up on a neighborhood institution by moving to close Wadleigh’s middle school. Jackson promised to call Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Dennis Walcott today to air his opposition to the plan.

Wadleigh’s 440-student high school would remain open under the plan, as would another middle school in the building, Frederick Douglass Academy II, which narrowly escaped closure this year after earning an even lower progress report score than Wadleigh’s middle school. A charter school, Harlem Success Academy I, is set to move its middle school grades into the building, according to a plan the city set last year.

The charter school co-location plan drew quick and fierce fire during the hearing. Perkins, an outspoken critic of charter schools, said Harlem Success had a track record of an “antagonistic relationship” with the local community and should not be given more space.

Department of Education officials said they sought to close Wadleigh’s middle school not to make room for the charter school but simply because keeping it up and running is unsustainable. It has just 94 students and last year earned a D on the progress reports the city uses to judge schools.

“With a school that is performing at this level at this size, is it possible to make it successful?” asked Shael Polakow-Suransky, a deputy chancellor, during the hearing.

In response, shouts of “Yes” emanated from the audience, which frequently interjected through the five-hour-long hearing. At times, they chanted until officials were drowned out.

Anthony Klug, a teacher and the school’s union chapter leader, said the departure of a math coach, guidance counselor, and dean had caused the middle school’s performance dip last year. Restoring those resources would help turn the school around, he said.

He drew cheers when he told the DOE officials listening to the testimony, “Closing a school is not difficult to do. It’s assisting the school that’s difficult.”

Klug told me he believes the middle school’s closure would “significantly negatively impact, if not destroy,” the high school’s arts programs.

“We have eight arts and specialty rooms, and so basically the last two years they were trying to colocate a third school in the building, not recognizing that these arts rooms take more space than schools that don’t offer these programs,” he said. “Dance kids are going to need more than a 500-square-foot room. Shrinking our school is the first step to ending [that program].”

Polakow-Suransky said during the hearing the building had more than enough space for Wadleigh to share space with another school and also maintain its arts programs.

But closing the middle school could take a different toll on Wadleigh’s arts programs, by reducing the number of students prepared to participate in them in high school, people said at the hearing.

The comments developed a theme that supporters of another performing arts school, who included staff from Wadleigh, outlined at its closure hearing earlier this week. Closing arts schools that serve low-income students would cut off a rare option for those students, argued supporters of both Manhattan Theatre Lab High School and Wadleigh. The schools have a close relationship: In 2006 Evelyn Collins left her job as Wadleigh’s assistant principal for the arts to head Manhattan Theatre Lab.

A handful of middle and high school students were the first to speak at the hearing. Standing in a line on the performance stage, the students said the school’s performing arts focus draws neighborhood students like themselves.

“This is a visual arts school that is trying to make the arts better so we can fulfill our dreams,” said sixth-grader Tiane Jackson. “Do you really want to be responsible for crushing dreams?”

Hall, Wadleigh’s principal, did not speak during the hearing. But FDA II’s principal, Osei Owusu-Afriyie, went to bat for Wadleigh.

“We serve the same students, we serve the same community,” he said. “Our school has some of the same struggles that Wadleigh has. We are working tirelessly every day to make it better.”

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