Vox populi

Conversation of the week: Participating in a controversial policy

Some of our most thought-provoking comments this week came in response to a first person account of starting a new school in the GothamSchools Community section.

In his post, teacher Stephen Lazar described his inner conflict over helping to start Harvest Collegiate High School this year. He believed in the new school, he wrote, but he knew that it would occupy space vacated by a school that was being closed. That school is Legacy High School, a struggling small school that will share its building space with Harvest in Union Square until it finished phasing out.

Lazar chose to join Harvest’s founding team, but still, he said, the question stymied him: Should a teacher help create a new school if he objects to the policy that led to its creation?

Commenters were divided in their answers.

“Former Turnaround Teacher” said that Lazar’s discomfort about his participation in the city’s reform effort is a common among educators at new schools and phase-out schools:

When I was looking to transfer at the end of the past school year I often faced a similar decision. I could not bring myself to apply to certain schools that I know where in current phase out buildings. However I did apply to some schools in buildings that had finished phasing out. When it comes down to it, in the current system unless you are lucky enough to get into the 20% or so of High Schools that are either specilized or the DOE for whatever…

Two commenters said they worked at Legacy High School, said Department of Education officials and Harvest Collegiate community members created a “hierarchy” that privileged the new school. Both schools share space in a Union Square building.

“Former Legacy Teacher” wrote:

The unspoken thing about starting a new school is the hierarchy of the new school over the closing school.  As a veteran teacher, I have been through two school closings, my second being Legacy, and the snobbery that the kids and teachers of the closing school experience by the kids, teachers, and administration of the new school is extremely damaging.  There is this idea by the new teachers and students that the closing school members are defective, that they failed.  Everyone may say that they are supportive and don’t judge but it happens.  I’ve overheard teachers and students at the new schools talk down about the closing school.  I’ve been told by new school members how they aren’t going to make the mistakes of the failing school.  It’s amazing to me the hubris, as you put it, that people have when opening a new school, how sure they are that they won’t fail.

And “Cave-Dweller,” a commenter who identified as a Legacy teacher also expressed concerns about the divide, and how some Legacy students and teachers don’t feel the school is being adequately supported by the department:

Our students have separate water fountains and bathrooms even though it would be far easier for our students to use the “Harvest Fountains”. Security makes sure that our students walk upstairs to the “Legacy fountains and restrooms”. As one student said, “Wow, did anyone see that movie about the Civil Rights movement with the separate fountains? This is just like that.”

Harvest does not speak to, greet, or often acknowledge Legacy staff. And before someone tells me about my prejudice. I have tried several times to at least have the elevator not feel like a ride up to prison. Sometimes they will speak to a student but this usual comes with ignoring the adult next to them.

My kids know and feel what’s happening. They see how Harvest and Legacy are separated; they feel looked down upon from the Harvest Community.

Lazar responded that he had heard a couple of students make negative comments about Legacy, and would bring this concern to school leaders and community members.

“Juggleandhope” offered Lazar words of support:

I agree with you that all our work involves ethical compromises and prioritization (and not just with NYCDOE but any work within a system of exploitation on what is literally blood-soaked (and gratefully rain-washed) land).  I also agree with your point that the dynamics of learning (and implicitly, actual experience) should be our focus rather than just the container politics (thanks for that word).  And I share your hope that your thoughtful and creative pedagogical relationships can make a big difference for some students (and adults) and that you can ameliorate the disheartening dynamics between the Legacy and Harvest students and staff.  Looking forward to further thoughtful posts about your work.

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