help wanted

De Blasio must end 'crisis' in Bronx school district, report says

Esperanza Vazquez and other members of the New Settlement Parent Action Committee, which released a new report Friday, at a District 9 rally in 2012. (Photo courtesy of New Settlement PAC.)
Esperanza Vazquez and other members of the New Settlement Parent Action Committee, which released a new report Friday, at a District 9 rally in 2012. (Photo courtesy of New Settlement PAC.)

Michelle Reyes recalls that when her oldest daughter attended school in the South Bronx’s District 9 in the early 90s, many of her classmates learned little and dropped out.

Two decades later, when her youngest daughter was a district student, Reyes saw much of the same — many floundering schools and struggling students.

By some measures, such as graduation and dropout rates, District 9 has advanced with the rest of the city since Mayor Bloomberg took office. But the district remains stubbornly among the city’s very lowest performers, and a new report by a parent-led advocacy group and a think tank argues that the next administration must aggressively attack the district’s long-term problems.

The report, released Friday by the New Settlement Parent Action Committee and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, suggests several ways the de Blasio administration could do that, beginning by creating a district-level improvement plan with input gathered at public forums.

“It’s like we’re in a sinkhole and we’re going lower and lower,” said Reyes, a member of the Parent Action Committee, or PAC. “It needs to stop.”

The report, titled “Persistent Educational Failure: The Crisis in School District 9 and a Community Roadmap for Mayor Bill de Blasio,” culled test scores and other data to highlight some of District 9’s longstanding woes.

The district, which includes Claremont, Highbridge, Mount Eden, and neighborhoods along the Grand Concourse, has a greater share of low-income students and English language learners than the school system as a whole.

While the state tests have changed since 2002, District 9 fourth and eighth-grade students have consistently scored lower on average than students citywide, the report says — in some years, by nearly 20 percentage points.

In 2013, while more than a quarter of city students passed the tougher state English tests and almost a third passed math, only 12 percent of District 9 students passed English and 14.5 percent passed math, according to the city. (The report’s slightly lower test score figures exclude data from the district’s charter schools.)

Despite the district’s dire state, the Department of Education has not paid it special attention nor staged a district-wide intervention, the report argues.

In fact, it says, the district has a smaller share of teachers with more than three years experience or ones with advanced degrees than the citywide average. And when PAC obtained a copy of the city’s improvement plan for District 9 a couple years ago, it contained outdated numbers and unspecific jargon, organizers said. (Beginning in 2012, the city stopped creating individual district plans and started using a single improvement plan for any schools the state identified as struggling, the report says.)

In response to the report, Department of Education Spokesman Devon Puglia noted that graduation and college-readiness rates are up and dropout rates are down citywide.

“That progress includes District 9, where we’ve made great strides — including a 65 percent increase in the graduation rate since 2005 — because the reforms we’ve enacted have worked,” Puglia said in a statement. “But as always, we have more work to do.”

The report claims that a signature Bloomberg-era policy — replacing low-performing schools with new ones — produced mixed results in the district.

For example, the city closed a large District 9 high school, William H. Taft, and replaced it with eight new schools. While the old school had a graduation rate just over 23 percent, three of the new schools had rates of nearly 51 percent in 2012, according to the city.

But, the report notes, two of the campus’s new schools are being closed and three are on the state’s struggling schools list. Overall, 12 of the 30 District 9 schools on that list were opened under Bloomberg, the report says.

The district’s high levels of poverty and unemployment, among other challenges, would complicate any administration’s school-reform efforts — but the report argues that the district’s schools so far have not been equipped to meet those challenges.

“There are kids [in the district] who don’t know if they’re going to eat at night or where they’re going to sleep,” said PAC member Lynn Sanchez. “They’re going to school with these issues — and the schools don’t know how to deal with them.”

Some of the report’s other recommendations for the de Blasio administration include a new-teacher mentoring system, more school arts funding, a program to train parents how to help their children with schoolwork, and school staffers who speak languages common among the district’s many immigrant families, including those from West Africa.

The report offers some proposals — such as more social services at schools, extra learning time for middle schools, and more preschool slots — that de Blasio has already promised, but it urges him to launch those programs in the neediest districts, such as District 9.

PAC, which parents formed in 1996, has held marches, petition drives and community forums in recent years as it pushes the city to overhaul the struggling district.

Angel Martinez, who has children in three District 9 schools, said another parent told her about PAC while their children played outside P.S. 64 earlier this year. Dismayed by her child’s lack of homework and the closing school’s lack of communication with parents, Martinez decided to join, she said.

Though the family recent moved to Harlem, Martinez decided to keep her children in their Bronx schools, she said, partly because she wants to help make them better.

“There’s a great force in the parents,” she said. “And if the schools would invest in that, we could be a great movement for them.”

Persistent Educational Failure

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