the educated voter

At an election voting site, a pep talk and a work day for teachers

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Blended learning teachers at I.S. 88 on Election Day. From left, Jared Cohen, Margherita Gallina, Principal Ailene Altman Mitchell and Emily Gordon.

As one of about 700 school buildings to double as a voting site today, M.S. 88 saw democracy in action on its first floor, where Brooklyn voters cycled through hallways and into a gymnasium to fill out their ballots.

But it was business as usual up one flight of stairs, where teachers graded tests and papers, caught up on lesson planning and attended training sessions on reading techniques and new co-teaching models.

On Election Day, schools are closed to students, but have remained open in recent years for teachers for professional development. It’s up to principals to shape the day and each school in the city uses their student-free time a little differently — though the Department of Education offers some hints about what to focus on.

At M.S. 88, a 1,200-student middle school in District 15, Principal Ailene Altman Mitchell said she started the day off with something of a motivational speech.

“The teachers, I wanted them to calm down a little bit,” said Altman Mitchell.

Stress levels were high and teachers were anxious about the negative attention that’s been focused on new teacher evaluations being rolled out citywide this year, Altman Mitchell said. So on a few pink Post-It notes, she jotted down a list of school’s accomplishments to remind her staff of over 100 teachers and administrators about some of the year’s highlights.

There was the $110,000 science grant, and a new pilot course that combines American history with eras of rock and roll music. This month, the school was formally recognized by the Department of Education as an “iZone Ambassador School” for its work at blending technology with in-class instruction to customize lessons for individual students.

Altman Mitchell said that the torrent of changes have been time-consuming for her as a principal, but also useful. A color-coded calendar tacked to a wall in her office showed the dozens of hour-long meetings that she has held with teachers this fall to discuss lesson-planning, instructional strategies and which type of observations they preferred as part of their evaluation.

“But now I have a bunch of best practices that my teachers use,” Altman Mitchell said, ones she didn’t know about before the meetings.

In a sign of just how much time the new teacher evaluations have taken to administer, the DOE extended one deadline for teacher evaluations until after Election Day, and suggested that schools use today to finish up their work.

Upstairs, teachers were just wrapping up a session on co-teaching models. Standing outside in the hallway, Nelia Wolosky, who teaches the Rock and Roll history course, said she had given a presentation earlier in the morning on an English teaching practice called “close reading.”

In a classroom around the corner, Jared Cohen, an eighth-year veteran of the school, was grading papers for students he taught in his blended learning class. The program is part of the city’s School of One program and relies heavily on computer software that tracks student progress on assignments and quizzes in real time.

Each paper Cohen pulled from a stack was entirely different from the one before it, a sign of the different kinds of lessons that students received.

“They all have different homework assignments because they are all at different skill levels,” Cohen said.

Being Election Day, opinions on the mayoral race were easy to come by for the teachers. Cohen, for one, said he wasn’t a single-issue voter who thought only about education when voting for mayor.

“I don’t disagree with everything that Bloomberg did,” Cohen said. “But I’m looking big picture. I’m not just a teacher. I’m a city resident, I’m a human.”

But Cohen said he was supporting de Blasio because he thought he was more in touch with what New York City will need in the coming years, including universal pre-kindergarten programs. Still, Cohen said Bloomberg deserved credit for things he got done during his 12 years in City Hall, including the things that may not have worked.

“If you’re going to swing and miss, at least swing your hardest,” Cohen said. “He did swing his hardest. It’s not a complete miss.”

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