clearing the bar

Officials: A's reflect successes, but standards may be too low

Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky briefs reporters on the high school progress reports, alongside Deputy Chief Academic Officer Adina Lopatin.

At a briefing on the latest high school progress report grades this afternoon, Department of Education officials touted the small boost in the number of schools receiving the best grades, but warned that the high grades might not be fully warranted.

It wasn’t easy for schools to keep their graduation rates or progress grades up this year. For the first time, most students were required to pass five Regents exams before graduating, and schools’ college readiness rates were factored into their overall progress scores. Still, 72 percent of schools received As and Bs—up from 64.4 percent last year.

Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky told reporters that the gains showed that schools were able to meet the new challenges before them.

“When you set a high bar and you give people time as you phase it in, people rise to the challenge,” he said. ” I think it’s a real accomplishment … but we’re very interested in getting schools to push higher.”

But that could mean raising the threshold for a good progress report grade—necessary to stay off the city’s list of schools it might close—for the second time since the progress reports were designed in 2007.

“If everyone’s reached the goal that we’ve set, then we typically up it because we want to push people to keep striving higher,” Polakow-Suransky said. If that happens, he added, the department will announce the new cut-off point this winter, giving schools time to reset their expectations.

Regardless, Polakow-Suransky said the schools that received As and Bs all deserved them, given the “higher bar” set by the  college readiness metrics, which make up 10 points out of 100 for each school. Last year, college readiness was measured, but not scored, and 24.7 percent of schools met the city’s standards. This year, that figure rose by one percentage point.

Officials singled out several schools with As for helping high-needs students meet the college readiness standard, including Bronx Latin and Excelsior Preparatory High School, small schools which opened just a few years into the Bloomberg administration.

Other schools that have struggled on recent progress report saw stronger-than-average college readiness scores, including John Dewey High School, which was almost closed earlier this year, and Herbert H. Lehman High School, which is on this year’s list of schools that might close even though it received six out of 10 points for college readiness and earned a B in that section.

Polakow-Suransky attributed the small overall college readiness gain to the emphasis on critical thinking skills found in the new Common Core curriculum standards, and a new program the city created for awarding credit to high school for special, advanced courses that once received no extra recognition.

“Most of the job of a high school is to meet the state standard for graduation, and we are slowly over the next few years changing the curriculum, changing the assessments, and changing the goals,” he said. “What we’re looking at really closely here is how do we motivate schools to introduce strong curriculum so that their kids actually have a shot at success when they leave.”

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