hitting pause (updated)

Candidates' criticism of school closures includes call for a halt

After closing 140 schools since taking over the system in 2003, Mayor Bloomberg shouldn’t be allowed to shut down any more, according to Bill Thompson, who would like to succeed the mayor.

Thompson today announced that he has been lobbying legislators in Albany to impose a moratorium on school closures in New York City until after Bloomberg leaves office at the end of 2013.

Thompson, who narrowly lost to Bloomberg in 2009, said he had heard rumors from sources “inside and outside” the Department of Education, including legislators, that the Bloomberg administration is planning to close 75 schools next year.

“Why would we allow that to happen in the last year of a Bloomberg administration?” Thompson said. “We need to be protected against the DOE right now.”

Bloomberg dismissed Thompson’s comment this afternoon, saying, “We can’t possibly know what we’re going to do next year.” But he added that his administration would “keep doing what we do right up until December 31, 2013” when his term ends.

“What we do” this year has included more school closures than in any previous year. If the Panel for Educational Policy approves the 23 school turnaround proposals before it next week, a total of 49 schools will close or begin to close this summer. In 2011, the city decided to phase out 22 schools.

Thompson called for the temporary ban on shutting schools at a press briefing about a new report outlining alternatives to the city’s approach to school closures. The report, produced by a committee convened last fall by the Coalition of Educational Justice, proposes that the city establish “Success Initiative Zones” where schools would be identified as struggling and given extra supports long before the city contemplates closure. It also highlights nearly a dozen groups and models that have shown promise in helping struggling schools improve in the city and elsewhere.

Two other candidates at the briefing, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, each said they would not support a moratorium because it is possible that some schools would warrant closure. But they said closure should be considered only after the city has tried valiantly to improve a school.

“I wouldn’t support one size fits all because if there’s a school where we’ve exhausted all options, I wouldn’t want to tie anyone’s hands,” Stringer said.

“[Bloomberg] has made clear that he’s closure-happy at this point, so I would not be shocked if that were the number,” de Blasio told reporters. “But I can’t in good conscience support a moratorium.”

CEJ had united the candidates against school closures before. In January, they decried the city’s school closure policies during a rally outside City Hall.

The candidates, who represent half of the people who have waded into mayoral campaigning so far, were divided on another issue that could shape up to play a major role in next year’s race: how the city’s system of school governance should be changed, if at all, when mayoral control comes up for renewal in 2015.

Stringer and Thompson both said that problems with mayoral control, which Bloomberg won in 2002, have been more about style than substance so far. “I still support mayoral control,” Thompson said. “I think it’s more about who the mayor is.”

But de Blasio told reporters that he would voluntarily cede some control by empowering the PEP, the citywide school board, to weigh policy decisions more meaningfully. The panel has essentially been a rubber-stamp for Bloomberg’s policies, particularly after 2004, when the mayor abruptly fired several of his appointees who had planned to vote against one of his proposals.

De Blasio said he had not determined exactly how the panel should change — altering the balance of mayoral and non-mayoral appointees is one option; another is promising fixed terms to panel members — but that the city should “not continue the status quo.”

He said elected parent councils in each district should receive some say in school closures, openings, and co-locations in their area. Currently, the councils have authority only over school zoning, but Assemblyman Keith Wright has proposed legislation to give the councils veto power over city plans to require district and charter schools to share space.

Thompson said he would like the councils, known as Community Education Councils, to have “real roles” but that he had not determined what that should be. Stringer said he would first work to implement a proposal he outlined last fall to strengthen capacity on the councils and improve their elections process, which last year was marred by especially serious complications.

“Only when you fix the CECs would I give them full authority,” Stringer said.

The candidates were united on another issue gripping Albany at the moment: whether to allow the results of teacher evaluations to be made public, as happened earlier this year in New York City, or keep them behind closed doors. The candidates all said they wanted to keep parents informed but did not see a need for teachers’ ratings to wind up in newspapers.

“I do not believe that we should humiliate our teachers,” Stringer told reporters. “To shield some of this from the light of day makes good sense.”

The report about alternatives to school closures is below.

Working Group on School Transformation Report Final

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