as long as you asked

Report that city sought finds room for improvement in networks

A study that the city Department of Education commissioned to boost the chances of having the next mayor continue the “network” school support structure concluded that while the theory is sound, the execution has not been.

Struggling schools have gotten too little support and communities and schools have had too weak of a connection under the networks, according to the report, released today by the Parthenon Group. One solution, the consulting firm suggests, is restoring some authority to district superintendents — whom the Bloomberg administration stripped of most power in 2007.

Networks replaced a system of school support that was linked to schools’ geographic districts. Instead of coaches and advisors giving professional development, curriculum, and budget help to all of the schools in a single area, they currently work with schools that choose their brand of support, no matter where the schools are located.

The new report comes at a time Mayor Bloomberg’s successor, Bill de Blasio, is deep into planning for his transition to City Hall. De Blasio has said he thinks districts should play a stronger role in school support, but he has so far offered few details about how he plans to change the way schools get help.

The report contains several ideas for de Blasio and his transition team. Before it got the contract to study networks, Parthenon secretly told the department that it would seek to identify “low-hanging fruit” that could be changed without overhauling the network structure entirely.

Parthenon interviewed more than 100 people inside and outside the department and examined city data to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the networks and point toward possible improvements.

The group found that principals appreciate being able to select who gives them support and being able to work with schools other than those that happen to be located nearby. It also found decoupling support from evaluation allowed some principals to seek help more often.

But Parthenon also found validation for longstanding critiques of the network structure.

One critique has been that the structure allows low-performing schools to operate with little intervention. The report backs up the charge, concluding, “The DOE today may provide too little empowerment for a set of schools that are high performing and experience little benefit from central supports, while offering too much latitude to principals who will not be able to figure out how to improve on their own.” It adds that when struggling schools have gotten intensive support, as the department has offered in recent years, they have usually gotten stronger.

The report suggests allowing superintendents, who must rate principals each year, to supersede network leaders for the worst-performing schools. “The formal authority of the superintendent is of greatest value when working with struggling schools that, without strong guidance, may not necessarily make the best use of their autonomy,” the report concludes.

Superintendents could also play a stronger role in helping communities feel connected to their schools, according to the report, which identifies community relations as a weakness under the Bloomberg administration.

“While the DOE points out that each district office has a family advocate position, there is a legitimate concern from parents that this position is disconnected from the day-to-day support, oversight, and resources that networks provide, and that district offices have few resources to act on their concerns,” the report concludes.

Staffing is another concern. The city does not have enough highly trained people to fill all of the difficult and specialized roles that networks must play, the report says.

“The current model, in which the DOE has to staff 56 network teams in addition to cluster teams and superintendents, has significantly increased the challenge of talent development and hiring for all of these positions, and left the existing talent base stretched fairly thin,” it says, adding that it might not even be realistic to find 56 strong network leaders. The staffing challenge is most acute in areas where network officials need specialized expertise, such as around special education, according to the report.

Shael Polakow-Suransky, the department’s chief academic officer, said Parthenon’s exhaustive interviews meant the report’s conclusions are worth considering. “I think it was a thoughtful report,” he said today.

From some principals, the possibility that the network structure might not survive into de Blasio’s tenure is a real concern, despite their drawbacks.

“I think that whoever is going to be in charge should be really mindful of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” said Donna Taylor, principal of the Brooklyn School for Inquiry, a citywide gifted school.

“Being able to go to a meeting and be able to walk into a room with 47 like-minded people means everything in the world to a principal and an [assistant principal],” Taylor added. “And without networks we wouldn’t have that. That’s big.”

Geoff Decker contributed reporting.

Parthenon’s complete report is below:

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