blast from the past

Thomas Edison HS student-turned-principal aims for relevance

When Moses Ojeda graduated from Thomas Edison Career and Technical Education High School three decades ago, he quickly learned he was not prepared for the real world. Now, as the school’s principal, his driving motivation is to prevent students from experiencing the same thing.

Ojeda has spent nearly 25 years at Thomas Edison, as a student, teacher, assistant principal and now as its principal, making him an anomaly in a system where administrators often take over schools with which they have no connection. Today, Ojeda has used his unique perspective to bring the school up to speed by updating its technical programs and academic standards.

As a high school student, Ojeda studied in the business equipment machine repair program, which included learning to fix electronic typewriters. But when he graduated in 1993, he said he wasn’t prepared for the job market because no one was using the electronic typewriters any more.

“If I had gone into the industry, I wouldn’t have gotten a job,” he said.

But he decided to go in a different direction after the teacher who ran the machine repair program, Alexander Bell, asked Ojeda to help him teach his classes. Ojeda loved helping other students, and Bell encouraged him to attend a five-year teacher training program — Success Via Apprenticeship, run jointly by the city, the City University of New York, and the teachers union — where he could be certified to teach technical subjects.

The program required students to complete six-month internships and when it came for Ojeda to do his, he returned to Thomas Edison and worked with Bell to get rid of the electronic typewriter repair program and replace it with a computer repair program, which Bell continues to oversee today.

After he finished his degree, Ojeda worked as a teacher at Thomas Edison for 10 years and later as an assistant principal for four years. In that time, he found other ways to update the schools’ programs.

He saw how the computer industry was beginning to build its own networks, so he helped bring in a new CISCO networking class, which teaches students how to network buildings with routers and switches. When he noticed that e-commerce was becoming more popular and everyone wanted a webpage, he convinced the principal at the time to add a web design program. Now, he wants to partner with a solar energy company to revamp the electrical installation program that is shrinking because students are more interested in the school’s information technology programs.

Above all else, he said, his goal is to ensure that the school and its graduates are relevant by understanding industries’ needs.

But when Ojeda took over as principal a year ago, he faced a whole different set of challenges. When he spoke to colleges and employers, they told him that Thomas Edison graduates often had weak communication skills and lacked creativity. The school was already beginning to work on aligning its curriculum to the new Common Core standards, but Ojeda took the efforts a step further, requiring all teachers to issue more writing assignments and assign two research projects during the year. He asked librarians and English teachers to help the entire staff implement the new standards.

“So many kids hide behind the computer, texting and e-mailing. They feel more comfortable communicating that way,” Ojeda said. “When they get in front of someone they’re shy, they don’t have those skills, they’re losing that. You need that in the real world.”

In English classes, students had to write argumentative essays based on books they were reading. In a technical class, a student wrote a comparative essay about the difference between Wifi and Bluetooth technology. And in a physical education class, students learned how to read and understand each category on a nutrition label.

“Now not only are CTE students ready for the job force, they’re college ready as well,” Ojeda said.

Adding more challenging academic assignments was more work for teachers and students, and Ojeda said some pushed back on the changes. But he insisted that teachers embrace the new standards, he said.

“In the beginning, teachers felt like, you want me to be an English teacher? I barely have time to get through all the curriculum,” he said. “But now they realize competitions want that, and being aligned with the Common Core will also help them with their teacher evaluations.”

Ojeda talks about competitions a lot. Under his leadership, all 12 career and technical education programs compete in some type of competition, whereas before only a couple did. Ojeda proudly talks about a recent Thomas Edison school senior who was offered a $40-an-hour CISCO internship after beating out competitors with college degrees, and last spring, when the school’s two-person web design team won first place in the state’s Skills USA competition.

“Why am I so big on them? There’s the motivational factor. It motivates kids to be top of the class,” he said. “It’s also a way for me to measure myself against other schools city wide, state wide and nationally. If we’re not coming in the top 10 then we’re not doing something right. … We have to stay on the cutting edge.”

At every turn, Ojeda is trying to give students as much hands-on, real world experience as possible. With the robotics program, usually only seniors received hands-on training while everyone else was doing electronics theory.

“That can be boring,” Ojeda said. “I always put myself in their seat. If I’m in a classroom and I’m bored, I’m going to tell that teacher, I don’t mean no disrespect, but you lost me a few times, and if you’re losing me with the knowledge I have of CTE, then you’re losing them.”

So Ojeda decided that beginning in the 10th grade, students would be able to begin working hands-on with the robots. Last year the 11th-graders, with just three weeks to prepare for a national robotics competition, placed 17th out of 65 in the competition.

As an assistant principal, Ojeda also expanded the automotive shop program from one year to three after teachers told him they didn’t have time to do anything more than teach students to detail cars. Last spring, senior Shazim Nasim won first place in a national collision and refinishing competition. He was also named the salutatorian and received a full-ride to a Boston technical college that focuses on auto mechanics.

“The program used to be looked down upon, but now it’s highly respected,” said Barry Roopnarine, who teaches automotive collision and refinishing.

Ojeda credits much of his success today to Bell, his former teacher and current colleague.

“One thing I was taught by Mr. Bell when I was a student was in life, make sure you pick a career that you love, because if you don’t love your career, you’re going to dread waking up Monday mornings,” Ojeda said. “That always stuck with me. I love my job.”

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