question and answer

"Equity and access" czar describes city's gap-closing efforts

Deputy Chancellor of Equity and Access Dorita Gibson spoke at an event promoting the Young Men's Initiative in October 2012.

After the state released lower test scores earlier this month, city and state officials disagreed over whether the achievement gap had gotten bigger. But all agreed that performance disparities between subgroups of students — most notably between white students and black and Latino students — were far too wide.

In 2011, Chancellor Dennis Walcott created a standalone Division of Equity and Access within the Department of Education to focus on what he said were “our most vulnerable students.” Last week, we spoke to Dorita Gibson, the division’s deputy chancellor, about the division, which includes District 79, the alternative schools district; adult education; partnerships such as the Young Men’s Initiative; and other initiatives designed to boost outcomes for high-need students.

Here are some of the most interesting takeaways from our conversation.

Why the Department of Education needs a separate Division of Equity and Access

Walcott’s decision to create the division sent the message that improving the school system does not mean the hard work is done, Gibson said.

“We’ve done such great work in the last 11, 12 years of this administration. We have great schools. We have great programs,” Gibson said. “But how do we as a school system make sure that all of our kids, regardless of their color and socioeconomic background, succeed in these programs?”

Now, Gibson spends her time talking to principals and teachers to get feedback on what’s not working at their schools; collaborates with other deputy chancellors in the department; and meets with potential funders for division programs in an effort to answer that question.

“It’s important to know the changes we have around school choice. Parents need to know how to navigate this,” she said. “Children need to know they have the opportunity to participate in these kinds of programs. And it doesn’t matter what the zip code is or where they’re coming from … How are we going to be the voice of the voiceless?”

How her past as a principal informs the work that the division is doing

Before moving to the department’s central administration more than a decade ago, Gibson was the principal of I.S. 25 in Queens. That’s where she realized that a large swath of high-need students were not always getting the attention they needed.

“When I was a principal, one of my main concerns was what do I do with children that are Level 2: children that have been promoted, that have done well in school,” she said. “But I know these children are struggling, [and] they’ll continue to struggle. … Those gaps are going to get larger and larger and larger.”

Summer Quest, one of the Division of Equity and Access’s central initiatives, aims to address exactly that group. When the program launched in 2012, the city invited students who had just barely passed state reading and math tests to take part. Gibson said the same principle guided the division’s efforts to expand enrollment in Advanced Placement classes and offer Specialized High Schools Admissions Test preparation to more students.

How the city is addressing diversity at specialized high schools

A persistent concern in New York City is that its more elite high schools, the eight specialized high schools, have very few black and Latino students. Last year, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund filed a civil rights complaint over the schools’ admissions process. Students’ scores on a single test determines their admission, a process that is dictated in part by state law. The Bloomberg administration has said it would work to prepare more students to take the entrance exam but would not push for the law to be changed.

Last summer, the department launched the DREAM Institute to help prepare low-income middle-schoolers for the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test. Unlike previous preparation programs that the department offered, DREAM takes place in middle schools, not the high schools that participants hope to attend, which Gibson said made the program more accessible to parents.

“It’s for kids that can’t afford to go outside and get extra help,” she said. “It’s not unlike taking the SATs. If you can afford to get SAT help, everyone goes to Kaplan or gets a tutor to get them help.”

But, she said, “It’s not really test prep. It’s interesting because you can’t prep for the test. It really is a learning curve.”

When the program first launched, about 800 students made it through the end of the six-month program and after taking the test, about half were offered a seat at a selective high school. Since then, DREAM extended its program to 22 months; the first cohort of students who began the program in the sixth grade will be finishing eighth grade and sitting for the SHSAT this year.

“This will be the first time we’ll be able to look at the data and see how children did in the 22 months they were there,” Gibson said.

Why concerns about specialized high schools miss the big picture

Ambitious students can find success in schools all across the city, not just at the specialized schools, Gibson said.

“You have a choice to go to any school you want in New York City. You need to be aware that you have a choice, and you need to be prepared so you can say yes to a school and no to another school. Our goal is to make sure all our high schools are prepared and are great for kids,” she said. “As we open up new small schools, we have some of the best schools in the country. So our specialized high schools are great, but our selective schools are great, and our local schools are great. We have a lot of great schools. … You need to find the just right school.”

It’s not all about the children 

One of the most significant changes in the division, Gibson said, was to split District 79 with one superintendent for adult programs and another for schools and programs that serve students under 21, so each could focus on meeting the needs of their populations.

Now that they’ve split the programs, they’re trying to smooth the transition that some students can make between the two.

“One of the big things we started to work on this year and we hope to take that into next year is even though D 79 and the adult program are separated, very often the children don’t finish the program by the time they reach 21,” Gibson said. “What we’re doing is we’re making sure that we continue to work with those children so they can easily transition into the adult program to continue that work.”

The next big challenge for District 79 students

In January, the state will stop administering the GED, the test that allows students who have not completed high school to demonstrate that they have equivalent skills. Instead, students will be able to take a new test that is tied to the Common Core learning standards. Gibson said she would be working to make sure students are prepared for this new exam but that the new standards present a steep challenge.

On missing the boat and getting back on

Gibson recalled her first “initiation” into District 79 when she became deputy chancellor: visiting East River Academy, the alternative school on Rikers Island.

“The visit there sort of put everything in perspective for me about what schools are about,” she said. “Because when you see 16 year olds and 15 year olds locked behind bars, you have to say, where do we as a school system miss the boat?”

Since then, Gibson said, the department has overhauled the instructional program at Rikers to have a stronger academic focus. She said, “We’re working to make sure they’re productive in the work they’re doing… and they’re not going to be latched on to their mistakes forever and ever and ever.”

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

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