collaboration continuation

Fariña's big bet on school improvement takes shape

Teachers collaborating at M.S. 88, one of the city's host schools, last year.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s new idea-sharing initiative for schools launched earlier this month with a lot of fanfare, but not many specifics.

The Learning Partners program, set to more than triple in size next year, puts schools in groups of three with one school in charge of opening its doors to share what’s working for its teachers and students. And as the 21 schools now participating in a pilot version have begun those visits, it’s growing clearer how Fariña’s signature program—a big bet on collaboration, rather than competition—will play out.

One thing that’s clear from a two-page memo sent to principals is that the program won’t cost the city much, though it will be a big time commitment for schools.

This spring, principals at the 21 pilot schools will be reimbursed up to $10,000 each for overtime and to pay substitutes filling in for staff who are on school visits. Next year, the reimbursement for the entire school year will be $15,000, which would cost the city a little more than $1.1 million if 75 schools sign up as planned.

And with schools facing a Friday deadline to apply to be involved next year, the city has cast a wide net to attract partner schools. To qualify, the school must have a principal with two to four years experience, or have any one of a list of “high-need” qualities: at least 70 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced lunch or are black or Hispanic; or at least 20 percent of its population are students with disabilities, English Language Learners, or chronically absent, among other factors.

Fariña said she picked the initial group of host schools based on strengths like improving instruction for English Language Learners, fostering “student voice and independence,” and involving parents. M.S. 503 in Sunset Park, for instance, was picked for its use of “teacher teams,” while New Dorp High School was picked for its use of student data.

For the partner schools tasked with visiting host schools, the memo says that “approximately” four staff members will have to plan to spend about 10 hours per month working on the program.

Participating principals acknowledged the burden, but said it could be worth the extra work.

“Really, the learning was more of the incentive,” said Paul Didio, principal at P.S. 159 in Queens, which is participating as a partner school. “I’m only on the job for three years now,” he added.

The school-to-school approach to professional development will be a marked shift from the Department of Education’s approach under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who often brought in outside consultants and coaches. Speaking at the city’s teachers union conference this weekend, Fariña said she wouldn’t be eliminating consultants, but talked up the Learning Partners Program as a shift.

“The idea is that if we find schools that are willing to share with others the secret to their success, we can get better very quickly,” Fariña said.

While Fariña noted many of the schools leading her pilot were once struggling schools at risk of closing, it’s clear that the program won’t be an explicit intervention strategy for failing schools. One of the selection criteria for partner schools is that they are already doing well in a specific area, but want to go “from good to great.” (A department spokesperson said that would be determined through a holistic evaluation of the school’s goals.)

And though Fariña has made it clear she wants to scale the program up quickly, officials haven’t finalized how they will evaluate if it has been successful. Officials said that in June, schools will present to the department what they learned from visiting their host schools. Next year, the department will develop a more comprehensive evaluation for the program.

For now, New Dorp Principal Deirdre DeAngelis said that it would bring a dose of reality to professional development.

“We know our everyday obstacles,” said DeAngelis, whose school was picked to share its celebrated approach to analytical writing and small learning communities. “We’re not walking into some paid PD where someone’s talking philosophically in some general way.”

Fariña has staked the program on the idea that collaboration can be a key driver of school improvement, another break from Bloomberg-era policies. DeAngelis said the current school evaluation system, which measures schools against each other, created a culture of competition.

“It really created this atmosphere of, shut the doors and don’t share,” DeAngelis said. “I’m not going to tell you that when people were here I didn’t feel like, oh, I’m giving away all my secrets.”

Participating principals are also facing a less philosophical problem: how to fit the school visits into their schedules. Host schools were supposed to send teams on 10 school visits and host six visits of their own by the end of the year, but Didio said last week that he had only visited his host, P.S. 503, once so far.

Other principals in the 21-school pilot program said that they too haven’t been able to visit each other’s schools more than once in the three weeks since the launch. Given the state testing season and a 11-day spring break, it’s been difficult to find time to visit schools at the pace that the program will eventually require, they said.

Wake up to a comprehensive round-up of New York City education news by signing up for our Rise & Shine newsletter here.

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