but a whimper

At Murry Bergtraum HS, little will to contest proposed changes

 Murray Bergtraum Business Teacher Carol Newell spoke of the need for more social services to help students do better in school. (Photo by Aisha Asif)
<br />Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers Carol Newell testified at a public hearing about how the school’s building will be used next year about the need for more social services to help students. (Photo: Aisha Asif)

The massive auditorium at Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers was nearly empty Thursday night when District 2 Superintendent Marisol Bradbury read aloud the Department of Education’s proposal to open a new high school in the lower Manhattan building.

The new school would work with the National Parks Service to offer career training in carpentry, masonry, landscaping, and restoration, Bradbury explained to the handful of adults in the audience. It would open in September with a ninth grade and expand to as many as 500 students over three years, according to the department’s proposal.

At the same time as the new school grows, Murry Bergtraum would lose students. By 2018, the school would have around 450 fewer students than the 1,806 who currently attend.

The proposal would mean a jarring new change for a once-venerable high school whose reputation and performance have plummeted in recent years. But where educators and students at other schools being asked to share space have made concerted efforts to hold on to their classrooms, few at Murry Bergtraum attended the city’s public hearing to comment on the plans.

The sparse attendance at the hearing did not surprise social studies teacher and teachers union chapter leader John Elfrank-Dana, who was not at the hearing himself. “We don’t have any community here,” he said. “When you send high-needs kids across town to school, you don’t have a community.”

Elfrank-Dana was referring to shifts in the school’s enrollment in recent years that have accompanied a rise in discipline issues and the withering of some popular programs. The closure of other large high schools in the area in the early years of the Bloomberg administration meant that many high-need students now end up at Murry Bergtraum, Elfrank-Dana said.

“The mayor turned one of the best high schools in the city into a dumping ground,” Elfrank-Dana said. “That’s been the legacy of the school for the last 10 years.”

In 2010, students rioted in the school after the school’s principal at the time banned bathroom breaks in an effort to cut down on discipline issues. The school received a “D” on its most recent progress report with an “F” in student progress, while only 29 percent of teachers say order and discipline is maintained in the school, according to Department of Education statistics.

Carol Newell, a business teacher at Murry Bergtraum who spoke at the hearing, said her department — once the pride of the school — shrunk from 32 teachers to just seven since 2006. She said students’ greatest need is for social services, a need that became especially acute after Hurricane Sandy.

“How do you make a kid study if he’s going through flux if he can’t figure out anything about his identity?” she asked. “There’s issues at home. How does he make it?”

Parent leaders from the area said their concerns about the department’s plans started at the school level and radiated across the city.

“Why are we developing a new school here to teach landscaping?” asked Paola de Kock, president of Citywide Council of High Schools. She said she wondered why the city did not give Murry Bergtraum some of the $20 million set aside for a new initiative to teach computer science in schools when the high school was one of the first in the city to teach the subject.

De Kock also said she was concerned that the city has moved to close other schools that started out sharing space with new schools, such as Herbert H. Lehman High School in the Bronx.

“What if it’s not the size of the school? What if it’s something else?” asked Shino Tanikawa, president of the District 2 Community Education Council. “I want to understand that.”

Both Tanikawa and de Kock said they were nostalgic for what they described as the pre-Bloomberg glory days at Murry Bergtraum.

“Murry Bergtraum was once one of the best non-specialized high schools in the city,” de Kock said. “I’m not talking about 100 years; I’m not talking about 50 years ago. I’m talking about this school from 1975 when it was founded until the Bloomberg administration.”

Elfrank-Dana said sharing space with another school would be disruptive if not detrimental, but he said he stayed away from the hearing anyway. “I have better things to do than participate in the illusion of due diligence when it comes to alleged transparency and common decision-making,” he said.

The Panel for Educational Policy, the city’s school board, is set to vote March 11 on the co-location proposal along with a slew of other space-sharing and closure plans. Among the members of the panel, which has never rejected a city proposal, is Judy Bergtraum, the daughter of Murry Bergtraum High School’s namesake.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?

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.