breaking bread

Charter group gets a seat at the de Blasio table, then backs him up

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Salim Virji

A charter group angling for the city’s support finally got a meeting at City Hall. Not long after, it’s become Mayor Bill de Blasio’s staunch ally on some politically-sensitive education issues.

First, it publicly distanced itself from a high-profile charter school rally being organized by de Blasio’s opponents. Then on Friday, it emerged as perhaps the only supporters of the city’s controversial decision around dozens of charter school co-location plans.

The loosely-connected group still doesn’t have a name and its founding members are hesitant to label themselves. “I’m not even sure it is a group yet!” Harlem RBI Executive Director Rich Berlin said in an email recently. 

Recently, it goes by “community-based public charter schools”. Its membership is a moving target, with schools signed onto some statements but missing from others. But its core leadership has stayed the same, consisting of, among others, Berlin, New Visions for Public Schools President Robert Hughes, Renaissance Charter School founder Stacey Gauthier, Teaching Firms of America founder Rafiq Kalam Id-Din, Future is Now Schools founder Steve Barr, and Jonathan Gyurko, an education consultant and former city education official.

Despite their uncertain status, they’ve made quick inroads since forming just a month ago. They were called to a meeting with Blasio’s top aides on Thursday morning, just hours before the city announced it was rolling back three Success Academy charter school co-location plans. A pressing item on the agenda was to offer a sneak peak at the reasoning behind the city’s decision and, possibly, get some political cover for what the city knew would be seen as a controversial move.

A day later, the group came through for de Blasio. In a lengthy statement, they said they “came away with the impression that the city’s process was thorough and decisions principled.”

“I think it’s always disappointing because people want space and need space,” Gauthier said of the decision in an interview on Friday. “But I think they went through a fair process. It’s still disappointing, most especially for Success that has kids who are still moving to another grade.”

It was rare public approval for the decision, which has so far been roundly criticized by most sides involved. City Council members and the schools they represent where many of the plans will continue said de Blasio didn’t go far enough. On the other side, Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz and her allies pledged to aggressively fight the decision, possibly with legal action.

(The city said it canceled one of the Success plans, which evicted currents students from a building for next year, because it would have resulted in the reduction of a program for students with disabilities.) 

It’s the second time that de Blasio has been backed by the group of charters while the mayor has been vulnerable. Yesterday, they said they were ditching a rally in Albany that was organized Moskowitz and other charter schol advocates because it was on the same day as a big prekindergarten lobbying effort planned by de Blasio’s team.

“The message you’re sending is that you just want a war,” Barr said, referring to the charter school rally. “I love political strength and organizing, but tactically to lead with that, it sounds more personal to some folks.”

The new support has been eagerly embraced by de Blasio’s team. A City Hall spokesman was the first to share both statements with Chalkbeat and a consultant from the public relations firm handling press for de Blasio’s pre-K campaign, BerlinRosen, blasted out a copy of the group’s anti-rally statement this morning.

The City Hall meeting included Intergovernmental Affairs Director Emma Wolfe, Deputy Mayor Richard Buery, Jr., and the chiefs of staff for both de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

Charter leaders who attended the meeting said they didn’t get anything in return for offering their support for de Blasio on these sensitive issues. They said they were just happy to have a seat at the table.

“When we first actually got together, our goal was just to have a dialogue,” said Gauthier. “Getting a meeting with senior officials is not necessarily easy.”

Gauthier and other attendees said that they also discussed, in broad terms, ways that the city could leverage its authority as school building landlords that house charter schools. One idea was to require schools to fill empty seats vacated by students who leave the school, a practice known as backfilling. Many of the highest-performing charter schools don’t backfill beyond early grades, which some believe can keep test scores high.

Another idea discussed was that, instead of paying rent, charter schools could pay for programs that could be shared by all co-located schools in a building, such as renovation costs, enrichment events and professional development sessions.

“We all left feeling very positive about this meeting, that the administration was really sincere in its efforts to work with us,” Gauthier said.

Correction: A previous version incorrectly stated the impact of the Success Academy expansion)

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