network diagnostics

Tensions flare as officials defend their school support systems

Councilman Jackson waives at Shael Polakow-Suransky (far right) during a hearing on the networks.

Facing criticism that the Department of Education does not hold the organizations responsible for supporting schools accountable for their success, Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky told members of the City Council today that the opposite is true.

In fact, he said during a heated hearing about the department’s network support structure, he has changed the leadership of 15 of the department’s 55 networks.

“Fifteen of those [former network leaders] are people that I did not have confidence in and we wanted someone to do better,” Polakow-Suranksy told the city council members during a lengthy hearing. “There is very clear accountability.”

That revelation was one of many data points he and other top officials shared this afternoon at a City Council Education Committee hearing on the school networks and their nebulous roles supervising each of the city’s 1,700 schools. The networks fit into a complicated and at times unintuitive picture of the school system’s structural make-up. They were created in 2007, several years after Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office and his former schools chancellor, Joel Klein, dissolved the 32 Community School Districts that once supervised the city’s schools and made academic and operational decisions.

Now, instead of being placed into networks based on their schools’ geography, principals are able to select which networks to join based on the philosophies and support systems they offer. And in turn, networks play the dual role of helping schools improve and communicating with the department’s superintendents who decide what teachers and principals should get tenure or be replaced.

Under duress from Councilman Robert Jackson, the committee chair, and several other councilmembers who spent hours grilling him on the ways the department hold schools and networks accountable, Polakow-Suransky conceded that the department should be more transparent about the role of the networks.

“The larger point you’re making—have we not done a good job sharing with the public all the information we have and can share—is right,” he said.

The information has never been a secret, department officials said, but they have never made an effort to make it public, for example by posting it on the department’s website in this level of detail.

To keep tabs on the networks, department officials said they evaluate them in six areas, from the rigor of their academics to their efforts to engage families, and then share those evaluations with school principals who may  be considered whether to join or leave a network. Beyond that, officials shared few new pieces of information on the networks, whose day-to-day operations have been largely unknown to the public since they were created in 2007.

The details shared this afternoon included a list of the 55 networks, which are organized into five clusters, and the names of each of their leaders, a map of where the networks’ have their offices, and a chart detailing how the department has funded the networks over the years. The main takeaway of that chart is that funding for the networks has decreased since 2007, from $250 million to $181 million in 2011. Those funds pay the salaries of the cluster and network personnel, the district superintendents, special education committees and partnership support organizations.

Officials also provided a chart of the structure of the networks, which each have 15 employees ranging from the leader and deputy leader to operations consultants and academic “achievement” coaches. The list of  their jobs is long, according to the powerpoint presentation officials presented; the networks are in charge of providing targeted professional development to school staff in need, creating reports on special education, making sure schools can access data on their students and operations, and educating families about their children’s education.

As Polakow-Suransky walked the committee through the powerpoint presentation on the networks, Jackson interrupted him several times to criticize the amount of time it took for the department to submit requested information to the City Council. Jackson repeatedly told Polakow-Suransky that he would have to make more information about the networks public “right now,” and criticized Polakow-Suransky’s sometimes-vague responses.

“You’re getting me a little annoyed here,” Jackson said at one point, waving his arms at Polakow-Suransky.

“Likewise,” Polakow-Suransky responded.

After he spoke, a network leader, a superintendent and a school principal recounted stories of how they help the schools under their purview, and how they work with each other.

“I am personally in schools working with principals almost every single day,” said Alinson Sheehan, the Children First Network 102 leader. She told a story of how her network, which includes 33 schools from Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx, supported one struggling Manhattan high school with an ineffective leader,  which she did not name.

Serapha Cruz, the principal of the Bronx School of Science Inquiry, a middle school, said her network, CFN 411, has helped her avoid closure.

“An achievement coach worked in our school with our teachers to create a much calmer school environment,” she said. “Five years later our school is a much safer place, with 95 percent attendance. Networks can have a profound and positive impact on schools.”

“My team had been supporting this school, incuding weekly meetings with the principal, the liaons helped with attendance interventions for students, and i also did classroom interventions, but the school was still struggling. despite our intentions the supports didn’t seem to be improving thelearning environment at the school. ”

Before deciding the principal ought to be replaced, She sought the advice of Tamika Matheson, the district superintendent of Manhattan High Schools. “Things aren’t perfect… but student attendance is up and teacher morale is also up.”

Even as Matheson, Sheehan and Cruz recounted the good that can come from a strong network-school-superintendency relationship, city council members remained skeptical of the networks’ value.

“I talk to all my principals, [and] I don’t know anyone who is satisfied with the current system,” Councilman Mark Weprin said. “Give me a superintendent and ten staffers and I will run my school district better than you are.”

Polakow-Suransky countered that he was familiar with many school administrators who are much more satisfied with the current network structure than they were a decade ago, when the schools were run by community districts. But Weprin was unconvinced.

School leaders, he said, “are afraid of their own shadows. They don’t want to do anything without checking behind them to make sure they’re not getting fired.”

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