Language Partners

In pact to boost services for English learners, city says it no longer needs arm-twisting

State Education Commissioner John King and Chancellor Carmen Fariña sign an agreement on goals to raise outcomes for English language learners.

Three years after being pressured to improve the education of English language learners, city officials under a new regime say they will tackle the problems without any arm-twisting.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña and State Education Commissioner John King on Monday agreed to increase enrollment in bilingual programs, put more qualified teachers in their classrooms, better match newly-arrived students with language services, and hold principals accountable for implementing their plan. The agreement sets yearly targets but did not include details about how the city will meet those goals.

Whether school districts do enough to provide non-English speaking students with equal educational opportunities has been under scrutiny for decades. In recent years, federal civil rights agencies have become more aggressive in their enforcement of civil rights laws, taking action in districts like Boston and Los Angeles. In 2011, New York City under Mayor Michael Bloomberg was put on a “corrective action plan” by the state, and agreed to open 125 bilingual programs in three years and reduce the share of newly-arrived students who weren’t tested for language services in a timely manner.

By 2013, a report from the city showed that the city had created 60 bilingual programs in two years and reduced the percentage of students who weren’t tested in a timely manner to less than 2 percent. That report was authored by Angelica Infante, then a top official with the city Department of Education. A top state education official responded two months later to say the city’s work has “satisfactorily met” its requirements.

But Infante, now the state’s top bilingual education official, said Monday that the city’s efforts had come up short when she was there.

“We honestly believe that there is a level of commitment that we have not experienced before,” Infante said.

The 13-page memorandum of understanding that King and Fariña signed Monday in midtown Manhattan offers an outline of the city’s plans. Some of the goals will likely be easier to obtain than others.

For instance, all students will need to be enrolled in one of three types of bilingual programs by the 2018-19 school year. A 2013 report said that just 159 students, or 0.2 percent, weren’t enrolled in a bilingual program and another 4,111 students were not receiving bilingual services and had personalized learning plans due to a disability.

The city also agreed to make all high schools hit ELL enrollment targets by the 2016-17 school year, cut down on the number of students who have received language services for more than six years, and make sure all language teachers are properly credentialed by the 2018-19 school year.

But the city declined to provide updated figures that it will use to measure progress around these goals. A spokeswoman said they would be “established over the next few weeks.”

State officials were also vague about how it would enforce its new agreement. Infante said the state’s intervention will “be dependent upon where the movement has not happened.”

The city has already made a few changes that Fariña touted after the signing event, which was held at Instituto Cervantes, a cultural center funded by the Spanish government.

First, the city set aside $13 million in the budget to support the initiative, much of which would go toward training teachers. The city already hosted an all-day professional development session for more than 300 teachers last week, “something they haven’t had in years,” Fariña said.

Fariña has said she wants to create 40 dual-language programs, in which fluency in both English and another language are equally encouraged, and is asking principals to apply to host those programs.

“It’s really a whole different mindset about how we’re doing this work,” Fariña said.

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