Regents Pass

Coalition wants the state to let more schools skip the Regents

A sign inside Urban Academy, a New York Performance Standards Consortium school, details the coalition's past struggles to maintain its Regents-exam waivers.
A sign inside Urban Academy, a New York Performance Standards Consortium school, details the coalition’s past struggles to maintain its Regents-exam waivers.

A coalition of small high schools where students complete graduation projects rather than take most Regents exams could soon add several more schools to its ranks – if the state lets those schools skip the tests.

The New York Performance Standards Consortium is in talks with the state to get Regents-exam waivers for as many as 22 schools that follow the group’s instructional model and use alternative assessments, but currently must also administer the Regents tests. The schools, which have been part of a multi-year pilot, include several high schools in the Internationals and Expeditionary Learning networks. Many of them have staff members who worked at consortium schools in the past.

The consortium currently includes 28 public schools — 26 in New York City and one each in Rochester and Ithaca — where students are exempt from taking all Regents exams except for English. Instead, they must earn class credits and complete intensive projects to graduate.

The group and its supporters – which include the city teachers union and more recently the city Department of Education – have lobbied the state to let more schools trade the Regents tests for the long-term projects, citing data showing higher-than-average graduation and college-enrollment rates among consortium schools.

“I think it’s a disgrace that these schools have to apply for a waiver to do more work and prepare children better,” said United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, adding that obtaining the state waivers is rarely easy. “We know every time we do it it’s a political battle.”

Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch declined to discuss the consortium or the waivers due to the ongoing talks. Ann Cook, the consortium’s executive director, also declined to discuss the talks but said she expected an answer from the state soon.

The consortium must ask the State Education Department to renew the test waivers for the schools that have them every few years, which the Board of Regents must approve. In the past, the consortium has sometimes needed to lobby lawmakers to get the waivers renewed, but Commissioner John King most recently granted the schools a three-year waiver extension in July.

The current negotiations are around whether the consortium can add new members, something that could be politically tricky for King to allow at a time when the state’s emphasis on standardized testing has come under fire. Some of the pilot schools have followed the consortium’s alternative-assessment model for years in hopes of getting their own waivers to stop administering Regents exams.

Students seeking diplomas at consortium schools skip the math, science, and social studies Regents tests. Instead, they complete a literary essay (in addition to taking the English Regents exam), social-studies research paper, applied-math project and science experiment, which they must defend before panels of teachers and outside observers. A student at the Institute for Collaborative Education, for instance, conducted a neurobiology experiment and wrote a 15-page paper comparing the writing of Ralph Ellison and Albert Camus for his assessment projects one year.

The city Department of Education gave the consortium funding a few years ago to train the pilot schools in its methods. Since then, it has pushed the state to offer those schools Regents waivers.

“We think this is very strong work that should be expanded,” said Shael Polakow-Suransky, the department’s chief academic officer. The school where Polakow-Suransky was the founding principal, Bronx International High School, is one of the consortium pilot schools.

Khadim Seck, a senior at Urban Academy, shows off artwork by a Japanese artist he analyzed for an art-criticism assessment project.
Khadim Seck, a senior at Urban Academy, shows off artwork by a Japanese artist he analyzed for an art-criticism assessment project.

The waiver wait has strained some schools. Jamie Munkatchy, a science teacher at Validus Preparatory Academy, a consortium pilot school in the Bronx, said that for the past six years she and her colleagues have attended consortium trainings, helped evaluate other schools’ graduation projects, and guided their own students to complete similar projects.

But still, their students must take and pass all five Regents exams required for graduation.

“You get tired of the consortium telling you waivers are going to come, but they never come,” Munkatchy said. “They would just say, ‘Be patient, it’s going to happen.'”

The situation changed recently for Validus. When consortium officials held a vote at the school to check for support of the alternative-assessment model, less than 80 percent of the staff voted for it. Now the consortium does not plan to seek a waiver for the school.

The consortium says it would like to secure waivers for all of the pilot schools that have participated in the trainings and where the entire staff backs the consortium model.

But some current and former pilot-school staffers have complained about a lack of transparency in the waiver process, where the consortium leaders lobby state education officials in private for the test exemptions on the schools’ behalf. Cook declined to provide GothamSchools a list of the pilot schools.

The consortium says it has asked the state to develop a more formal process for granting the waivers.

In the meantime, some pilot schools have struggled to balance the consortium-style project work with preparing students for the Regents.

“It’s kind of like dancing with two partners,” said Matt Brown, principal of Kurt Hahn High School, a pilot school that is part of the Expeditionary Learning network. “We feel like we would do a better job for our kids if we could focus on the performance-based assessments.”

Claire Sylvan, executive director of the Internationals Network for Public Schools, said of the network’s 15 New York City high schools, three are founding members of the consortium and the rest are consortium pilot schools.

“We do find that we can’t go as in depth in our performance tasks and portfolios in our schools that are required to do Regents as we can in our other schools,” Sylvan said, adding that she has not been informed if or when the pilot schools might receive waivers.

Leo Casey, executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, who previously worked closely with the consortium schools when he was the UFT’s vice-president, said he did not expect any schools to adopt the consortium model simply as a way to sidestep the state tests.

“It shouldn’t be seen as an opt-out,” he said. “It’s taking on a great deal more work.”

Khadim Seck, a senior at Urban Academy, cited an art-criticism project where he analyzed the work of the Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara — he creates “pictures that look cute, but there’s something dark lurking” — as an assessment that spurred learning in a way a typical test could not.

“Students are more than just a grade,” he said. “They’re actual thinkers.”

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