course correction

Hoping to please parents, school introduces real-time polling

The results of the Department of Education’s learning environment surveys, due tomorrow, aren’t likely to go public until June. But Catina Venning, the executive director of Fahari Academy Charter School, doesn’t want to wait. Since the start of the year, she has been polling Fahari’s families monthly about their satisfaction and tweaking the school’s practice in response.

She launched the polls after Fahari scored a B last year on the section of the progress report that counts survey results — the “environment” section. Looking closer, she found the source of the problem: parents had graded the school poorly for communication.

“We looked at our survey from last year and the numbers were a little bit lower than they were in our first year and that was not pleasing to us at all,” Venning said. “We want to make sure parents are getting the services they’re signing up for.”

The new mini-polls’ instant feedback has already led to some changes. After only 55 percent of parents reported receiving weekly phone calls from their child’s advisors in a fall survey, Venning issued a course correction. Soon, advisors were submitting weekly contact logs to administrators, and parents were receiving not only more frequent reports but also weekly newsletters.

The polling is part of a larger outreach push that includes a new director of family engagement and a parent she’s brought on staff to work with families after school.

It’s not yet clear, of course, whether the work will lead to a better score on the official survey. But on the mini polls, which pluck questions directly from last year’s learning environment survey, parents have been voicing more satisfaction with the school’s communication.

Venning said the strength of the polling work has been that it focused on a single area of weakness: communication. Next year, she said, she might pick a new focus to tackle.

A ticker on the Department of Education’s web site most recently counted that 256,266 individuals have taken the survey online. And school-by-school results reported yesterday morning include a range of return rates from zero to 99 percent.

In the past, the surveys have received mixed reviews. At some schools, critics charge that the surveys portray an overly sunny picture. At others, low response rates and high dissatisfaction rates suggest that teachers might be using the surveys as a way to lash out against principals they dislike.

The results, though, can mean high stakes for the entire school community. The scores aren’t telltale of a school’s destiny for closure, but DOE officials have pointed to them during closure and turnaround hearings as justification for upending the school.

On Monday night, for example, Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky told the crowd at Lehman High School that aside from a 50 percent graduation rate, survey results also point to shortcomings. He highlighted the fact that only 66 percent of students reported feeling safe and 52 percent of teachers reported discipline issues.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?

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.