Exchange Program

Co-located 'Learning Partners' forge bonds as they swap ideas

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Educators from three schools in the John F. Kennedy High School campus met on Thursday as part of the Learning Partners program.

Instead of traveling to far-off countries, what if exchange students stayed closer to home — say, in the building where they already go to school?

Chancellor Carmen Fariña floated that idea to educators Thursday in the Bronx’s lumbering John F. Kennedy High School campus, which is home to seven small schools. Speaking to three of the schools, which have struck up a close working relationship, Fariña suggested the next step could be to trade teachers and honors students for a week at a time as a way to swap ideas and sow goodwill.

The triad — Marble Hill High School for International Studies, the Bronx School of Law and Finance, and Bronx Engineering and Technology Academy, or BETA — are members of Fariña’s signature initiative, called Learning Partners. Its own sort of exchange program, Learning Partners sends educators on regular visits to high-achieving host schools (in this case, Marble Hill) so they can gather ideas and build professional networks. The program cuts to the core of Fariña’s school-improvement philosophy — that the best people to train educators and offer ideas to better their schools are fellow educators.

Among the 73 Learning Partners schools, the Kennedy campus triad is the only group housed in the same building, or co-located. Co-location can be an explosive issue, and with many school buildings already overcrowded and new charter schools seeking space, it might become even more so.

As the city prepares to release new co-location guidelines, Fariña said Thursday the issue doesn’t need to be divisive, and she pointed to the three Bronx schools as a model of how to make space sharing work. She even suggested that other schools that share buildings could come visit these three — a sort of Learning Partners, co-location edition.

“We struggle so much about co-location, but there are ways to deal with it,” she told the group of educators from the three schools gathered in the campus library. “And you have found a way.”

The Kennedy campus schools joined Learning Partners last spring, when it was still a pilot. But they already had a good rapport, their principals said. They formed a building council years ago to address logistical issues like bell times and lunch schedules, their students play on building-wide sports teams, and they worked together to revamp the shared library, which was recently completed.

Still, teachers from the separate schools seldom interacted before Learning Partners. Now, they compliment the work posted outside one another’s classrooms and observe each other teaching, several said. Even elevator rides in the eight-story building have improved now that the teachers in the lift recognize each other, one said.

“I do think it’s a great way to build community on the campus,” said Marble Hill principal Kirsten Larson. “Because co-location is one of the most difficult things — having to share resources without funding behind it, without support.”

Bronx Engineering and Technology Academy English teacher, Dana Holness.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Bronx Engineering and Technology Academy English teacher, Dana Holness.

In the spring, the schools decided to focus on the intensive projects that Marble Hill requires students to complete throughout the year in every subject and present to reviewers during hour-long presentations. BETA tried out similar projects over the summer with incoming freshmen, while Law and Finance is rolling them out in special-education classes this year. And Marble Hill, inspired by questions that their building colleagues raised, decided to tweak its own system, reducing the number of projects from three to two per marking period.

The group’s emphasis now is on strengthening their school “cultures.”

To Marble Hill, this includes things like its strict dress code and their equally high expectations for recently arrived immigrants, who are expected to present their projects in English even if they are still learning the language. At Law and Finance, it means making it cool to be smart, said principal Jessica Goring. And at BETA, a strong school culture is one where teachers have similar approaches and mindsets — something the school is trying to learn from Marble Hill, said BETA principal Karalyne Sperling.

“How do they get all their teachers to drink the Kool-Aid?” she asked, admiringly.

The Learning Partners program has played out so well among the three schools in the Kennedy building, the four others should also be brought on, said Marble Hill teacher Sherry Lewkowicz.

“That,” she said, “seems like the obvious next step.”

Correction: A previous version misidentified the principals of two schools. Jessica Goring is the principal of the Bronx School of Law and Finance, and Karalyne Sperling is principal of the Bronx Engineering and Technology Academy.

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