School leaders enumerate challenges on the eve of the new year

Chancellor Dennis Walcott visited the School of the Future to hear from department chairs about citywide education policy reforms.

Most classrooms were set up and schedules finalized at M.S. 223 in the Bronx this morning, 24 hours before students would arrive for the first day of school.

But teachers still needed to meet to review the lesson plans they are aligning to the state’s new curriculum standards, the Common Core. As they finished their breakfast and got to work, they were joined by Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott and his top deputy, Shael Polakow-Suransky, on the first of their two school visits today.

Walcott gave the teachers a quick pep talk before sitting in on their training sessions. But he cautioned that the school’s past successes — which include a strong arts program, summer classes, and a New York Times Magazine profile — were not enough.

“I think this is a tremendous school. You’ve had major accomplishments,” Walcott said. “We need to make sure we model what you’re doing and also improve on that performance as well.”

Like all city schools, M.S. 223 is contending with the new standards, looming changes to state tests, and citywide special education reforms aimed at better integrating students with disabilities.

Today, the teachers focused on a small piece of the sweeping changes: developing performance tasks, or assessments that reflect the Common Core’s emphasis on real-world applications of classroom learning.

“[This] is probably one of the most difficult pieces of the puzzle,” Principal Ramon Gonzalez told reporters. “It’s difficult to think about six-week lessons that build up to a performance task, but it impacts everything the teachers are doing before that. And the Common Core has really pushed this agenda forward.”

Ashley Downs, the school’s special education coordinator, said the English department has set personalizing instruction as a top goal. “We’ve spent a lot of time trying to work with teachers to move away from whole-group mini-lessons to more specific, individual, one-on-one or small group conferences,” she said.

In one classroom, Heather Burns, the school’s literacy coach, was guiding English language arts teachers on how to use a rubric to help students become better writers.

The stakes are high: This year’s state tests will focus more heavily on essays than on multiple-choice questions.

“This spring there’s going to be a lot more nonfiction, and generally they’re making the tests much much harder — very different than the difficulty level we’ve seen in the past few years,” Polakow-Suransky told reporters.

“Chancellor [Merryl] Tisch has said we will see the results,” Walcott said about the state education official who helped engineer the changes to the exams. “They’re not going to necessarily be positive.”

Walcott talks to teachers at M.S. 223 while principal Ramon Gonzalez looks on.

After 90 minutes bouncing among M.S. 223’s academic department meetings, the pair sped downtown to visit another school: School of the Future, a secondary school where students are not required to take most state exams required for graduation.

While teachers waited for their guests to arrive, some discussed a set of major policy changes that are affect only high schools. In February, the Department of Education announced it would tighten the way high schools award credits and assign students to classes.

So for the first time, School of the Future and other high schools won’t be able to let seniors who are close to graduation take shortened schedules.

Because students have flexibility around state exams, School of the Future won’t have to deal with some of the acute scheduling challenges that some high schools are facing, according to Sarah Kaufman, who is spending the year at the school to learn how to be a principal.

But the school is still making some adjustments. For years, the school used an early dismissal on Thursday afternoons for professional development and also to allow students work at their internships, which are an integral part of the school, Kaufman said.

“It was great for our seniors,” she said.

Now, instead of the early dismissal, the school will hold a study hall where students will be able to work on class assignments and get help with college essays and resume writing.

Once Walcott and Polakow-Suransky arrived, the conversation quickly shifted to the city’s special education reforms, which department officials have touted much more widely than the high school policy changes. This year, schools are being required to accept students regardless of their disabilities as part of a push to create more inclusive education settings. The changes are causing anxiety and tension at some schools, but School of the Future teachers said they are prepared for the shift.

“Our school has always used an inclusion model, so it’ll be a smooth transition,” said Whitney Lukens, the school’s special education department chair, a 13-year teaching veteran. “It won’t be as hard for people to wrap their heads around the changes.”

Before he left, Walcott acknowledged the challenges facing a secondary school like the School of the Future, which loses many of its students in eighth grade and enrolls new ones in ninth grade.

“You have a monumental task in front of you,” he said. “But I know you guys are going to do it.”

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

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