chartering territory

With clock ticking, a charter school tries to turn itself around

Fahari Academy Charter School opened the school year with many new teachers and administrators as part of an effort to improve quickly.

Last month, Radha Radkar expressed her excitement for a new year at Fahari Academy Charter School by discussing a task that, for most teachers, is an annual rite.

“I’m decorating my own classroom,” said Radkar, a second-year English teacher.

For Radkar and her Fahari colleagues, however, it was an unknown luxury. Last year, teachers didn’t have their own classroom and had little time to prepare for their lessons. Instead it was teachers who rotated — while students stayed put — a small, but significant component of a broader culture that staff said contributed to the school’s demise.

Much has changed this year at Fahari as part of a comprehensive attempt to keep the school from closing. On Aug. 27, the Department of Education officially placed it on probation, primarily because of the sky-high teacher and student attrition rates that have plagued the school since it opened in 2009.

Radkar said the school was anticipating the probation notice for months and had spent the summer  preparing to open with many new programs and policies. Now, they have less than a year to show the school is taking steps to improve. By Monday, the school must submit an improvement plan detailing the changes underway at the school.

“We are definitely in the middle of transition,” said Radkar, who helped develop new reading and writing curriculum over the summer. “At the same time, our leadership is trying to figure out a direction this year.”

The board officially hired Dirk Tillotson to take over the school as executive director in July, though he had been working day-to-day in the school since January. Tillotson had previously consulted for Fahari, but when the school’s struggles intensified last year, he said he felt a responsibility to take on a larger role.

“I love the school,” said Tillotson. “To not throw myself into this would be walking away from an opportunity to do something special.”

With a quickly hammered-out union contract almost in hand, Tillotson has brought on a new principal and academic director from his consultancy organization, New York Charter School Incubators, to help with the turnaround.

The problems that they have inherited are severe and will not be easily fixed. At least 100 students left the school since it opened in 2009, including 58 during a seven-month span last school year, according to the city’s probation letter.

“This level of change within a relatively small population of students is disruptive to the school’s culture and may be symptomatic of other issues,” Paymon Rouhanifard, who oversees the city’s diminished charter school portfolio, wrote in the probation letter.

Rouhanifard was right, say former staff who clashed with the school’s founding executive director, Catina Venning. They said that her student disciplinary system was overly harsh and inflexible. Last year, the school reported 91 out-of-school suspensions, according to city data.

Students received demerits for minor infractions, including speaking out of turn, a former administrator said. If they didn’t bring a signed letter from parents the next day, the administrator said, they were given an automatic Saturday detention.

“It’s taking ‘no excuses’ too far,” said the administrator. “It was like a militaristic boarding room style.”

The probation letter also cited lagging test score results in the probation letter. But Tillotson said it did not take into account the gains made on the 2012 tests, when  62 percent of students scored proficient on math and 47 percent were proficient in English.

Tillotson and the current staff declined to comment on Venning’s tenure, which officially ended at the end of the 2011-2012 school year. Venning, a former New York City Teaching Fellow who served fellowship stints at Building Excellent Schools and at Achievement First Bushwick before founding Fahari, did not respond to requests for comment for the story.

The former Fahari administrator, like most staff that joined while Venning ran the school, left after a short period of time. Just two of nine founding teachers returned for a second year and another eight teachers left last year, according to city data.

“Teachers came in one day and went out the next day,” said Marie Valentin, the mother of an eighth grader at the school.

Early on in the 2011-2012 school year, the new teachers voted to unionize, something that Tillotson said has actually helped stabilize the school.

“When we came into this as charter people, we felt this was going to increase our costs, just one more thing to deal with,” Tillotson said. But he said that both sides had a “shared interest” to rescue the school from closure, “and that was the approach to the bargaining.”

Tillotson’s counterpart at the United Federation of Teachers, Leo Casey, also said the unionization process went unusually smoothly. Casey has encountered fierce resistance from charter school managers in the past after teachers voted to unionize. He said he expected similar conflict with Fahari’s administration.

“What was interesting about Fahari was that it wasn’t a school thinking that a union would be an impediment toward improving,” Casey said. “Through the process they realized that the union to a real partner in stabilizing the school.”

Casey said it took less than a year to come to terms on a new contract, a record for negotiations. The contract is not yet ratified, but it includes a salary structure that offers teachers 20 percent more than the city average.

As the school year got underway in August, teachers who worked at the school last year said that they already sensed it was a new day at the school. Tillotson was also optimistic but said he expected bumps along the way.

One morning, the heat was smothering and students struggled to focus in the fourth floor classrooms of the school, which shares space at M.S. 246 in Flatbush. The hallways were bare, resembling a hospital more than a school, but new principal Joann Falinski said she hoped to fill them soon with student work soon.

In her classroom, Radkar had set up a “reading nook” in the back of her room to allow students time for personal reading each day.

“What we noticed last year was that kids didn’t have enough time to read,” she said. “You could just tell that the kids needed more practice.”

2012 Fahari Academy Letter of Probation

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