waiting game

Dispute over grants for longer school days leaves schools in limbo

Plans to lengthen the school day at eight low-income middle schools are now hanging in the balance because of a squabble between city and state officials.

With a little more than four weeks before the school year starts, the schools counting on nearly $8 million in “extended learning time” grants have been told the money is in danger of being withheld because the city’s application didn’t comply with state contracting rules.

The city was one of 25 districts across the state that applied in October to lengthen the year at low-income schools by 25 percent, and was awarded $7.6 million last month.

Many of the city schools set to receive the funds, such as M.S. 223 in the Bronx and I.S. 340 in Brooklyn, lengthened the day for sixth graders last year by two and a half hours as part of a pilot with the city’s Middle School Quality Initiative and were planning to expand those programs. Another school, I.S. 77 in Queens, wasn’t part of the MSQI pilot, but had extended its day for some students by 40 minutes in the morning.

The uncertainty has frustrated officials who hoped that by now they would have been able to start planning for longer days when the school year begins Sept. 4.

“This is a great opportunity for a huge amount of funding, and it’s going to be hard to try to do this in two weeks in August,” said an official from a school set to receive some of the funds.

The funding hold-up is the latest in a string of issues that has plagued Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s touted competitive education grants. Cuomo first floated extended learning time in a speech 19 months ago that laid out his 2013 budget priorities for the year.

Capital New York reported last week that just two winning districts statewide had concrete plans for implementing extended learning time models in their schools, while two other districts were considering dropping out entirely, citing the limited time they had to implement the programs.

With the school year a month away, city schools are still eager to get started, said Chris Caruso, vice president at The After School Corporation, one of three nonprofits picked by the city to help implement the grants this year.

“I know that the schools are anxious and from what I hear there continues to be optimism that this will get resolved,” Caruso said.

City education officials said the hang-up was because of a disagreement over a state law that’s meant to ensure that minority or woman-owned businesses are given an equal opportunity in state-funded contracts or grants. The city says the law doesn’t apply to the department in this case and is seeking a waiver, while officials for Cuomo have insisted that any applications for state-funded grants must comply.

“In other words, the State selected us as a district grant recipient even though the proposal as submitted did not meet the expectations required,” Christina Fuentes, who directs the city’s Middle School Quality Initiative, wrote in an email to principals and nonprofits who were part of the application on Tuesday.

Fuentes said the department was ready to start a fight over the matter.

“We are currently working with our legal department and aligning our interests with political entities to try to get over this impasse,” Fuentes wrote.

Representatives for both the governor’s office and the State Education Department refuted Fuentes’ concerns and said the city’s grant was not being withheld. They would not confirm if the city’s application complied with state procurement laws and said the money had not been disbursed yet because the grant process wasn’t complete.

After Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the email and followed up with questions to the city department’s press office, a spokeswoman downplayed any disagreement and said the issue was headed toward an amicable settlement.  She said that the city was working with the governor’s office to comply with the state’s Minority/Woman-owned Business Enterprise law.

“The DOE is finalizing a robust [Minority and Women Business Enterprises] plan, and we are working towards fuller MWBE participation in the coming year to ensure we receive this critical funding,” said the spokeswoman, Devora Kaye. “We are examining ways we can support schools and programs this upcoming year, in case there is a delay in funding.”

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