PEP Talk

Before storm, Fariña talks special education and snow days at PEP meeting

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Debra Zito was one of several parents at a Staten Island meeting this year who spoke about the need to improve special education services.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña defended her snow day decision-making at a public meeting Wednesday evening, shortly before announcing that schools would remain open Thursday despite heavy snowfall.

At this year’s second Panel for Educational Policy meeting, held on Staten Island, Fariña also hinted at possible policies changes around student promotion and special education and previewed a series of town hall-style meetings with teachers.

Echoing comments she made after last week’s non-snow day, Fariña said Wednesday that many working parents rely on open schools and many children rely on school meals. Saying she felt “very comfortable” with her snow day decisions so far, she noted that the city rarely closes schools due to snow — “10 snow days in 40 years basically” — but said students’ safety is always a top concern.

She added, “as a joke, but I also mean it,” that even on snow days, Macy’s and other stores remain crowded with customers.

“So if people can get themselves to the malls,” she said, before adding, “I don’t mean to say this in a belittling way, I’m just saying the reality is that school is an important thing.”

Shortly after the meeting ended, Fariña announced that schools would remain open Thursday.

But looming bad weather seemed to be the least of parents’ concerns. In public comments, many raised issues about the way their children with special needs are being served by their schools. Several added that the shift to the Common Core standards had left their children farther behind.

“I feel like every special ed parent I talk to has the same complaint — that special ed is being left out that, they’re not being differentiated,” said Jaclyn Visone, the parent of two children with special needs at Staten Island’s P.S. 3.

Fariña noted that the new evaluation system measures teachers’ ability to differentiate, adding, “There’s no such thing as you can’t differentiate.”

But she also said she was considering some policy changes, such as revamping in-school interventions for students and adjusting the timeline when personalized learning plans, known as IEPs, are crafted for students with special needs. She said IEPs are set and schools are staffed at different points in the year, potentially causing a disconnect between the personnel required by the plans and who is hired.

“To the degree that we can change the paradigm of how it’s been done in the past, we will strongly look into it,” Fariña said.

When a parent suggested that schools not consider test scores when deciding whether to promote students to the next grade, Fariña said she was “certainly looking at things like promotional policy,” as she told parents last week in Brooklyn.

Fariña mentioned several upcoming events that are in the works, including a parent conference in May and teacher meetings in each borough that would be “strictly Q and A” between her and educators.

Several charter school parents, many of them members of the advocacy group Families for Excellent Schools who traveled to the meeting from other boroughs, described the uncertainty caused by the city’s plan to review previously approved co-locations, which many charter schools rely on to open or expand.

Fariña said she had been holding “voluntary” meetings with charter school leaders as her department considers each proposed co-location. She also suggested that some schools may be more worthy of public space than others.

“The reality is,” she said, “that like not all public schools are created equal, not all charter schools are created equal.”

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