New Directions

For students aged 17 and in eighth grade, a Bronx middle school tries to break through

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Principal James Waslawski designed New Directions Secondary School for middle school students who are overage and off track.

Longtime teacher and principal James Waslawski watched many students get stuck in middle school.

Maybe they were homeless and drifting in and out of the system, or bad choices — perhaps triggered by trauma at home or in the streets — kept them in trouble and out of class. Maybe they had a disability, or they just couldn’t keep up with the work, so they were held back again and again.

Whatever the cause, he knew of 14 and 15-year-olds stuck in sixth and seventh grade, and eighth-graders older than some seniors in high school. In fact, the city has more than 50,000 middle-school students who are older than their peers, but only enough specialized programs to serve a few hundred of them.

Waslawski’s idea was to create a middle school just for those students who are overage and off track. The result, New Directions Secondary School, opened last year on the basement floor of the towering Taft High School building in the South Bronx.

It is for students, Waslawski said, like the 15-year-old seventh-grade student with severe attention problems who used to stray out of class but is steadily completing more work under the school’s close supervision.

“He’s a genius – a genius,” Waslawski said. Yet, “at other schools, he’s going to be managed, he’s going to be suspended, he’s going to be gone.”

Not unexpectedly, New Directions has at times tottered under the weight of its mission: Behavior problems have cropped up, last year’s test scores were exceptionally low, and some of its founding teachers expressed doubts. But students accustomed to rocky relationships with their past schools, including one who hadn’t attended classes anywhere for three years, have actually started to show up regularly to New Directions, relying as much on the personal support as the academic help.

Students and staff say the school’s model — small classes, lots of counselors, online learning, and a less punitive discipline system — is starting to take hold, even if it has yet to fully take off.

“They’re trying to work with a population that is probably the most difficult in New York,” said Nate Dudley, the head of the support network responsible for the school. “We knew that this was going to be tough – and it is tough – but it’s still hopeful.”

Meeting students where they are

School-wide "agreements" posted in the main office.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
School-wide “agreements” posted in the main office.

When Waslawski opened New Directions in July 2013 after a year of planning, it was one of the first schools of its kind in the city.

While there are dozens of programs able to serve thousands of high-school students who fall behind, fewer than 450 slots exist in programs for overage middle school students, according to a recent report by the nonprofit Advocates for Children. Many of those middle-school programs are designed primarily for eighth-graders or students with particular problems, such as substance abuse.

Borrowing a practice from alternative high schools, Waslawski brought in a nonprofit, Wediko Children’s Services, to provide counselors and run student-support sessions on topics from marijuana use to the way students must “code switch” as they adapt their behavior to school or work.

Sometimes the school must go to the students. Waslawski and a counselor recently gathered several service providers and case workers for a meeting at a student’s house. Other times, they attend students’ court appearances. The idea is that crises at home rarely stay there.

“If you’re in temporary housing and you’ve been up all night,” said Paul Allison, an English and social studies teacher, “it’s hard to concentrate on your work.”

When students act up, the school tries to avoid suspending them, since many went off course at their old schools because their misbehavior kept them out of class. Instead, a student might help paint the school on a Saturday or interview peers and teachers about the harm his actions caused. A student who intentionally bumped into Waslawski was still suspended, but he also had to help serve lunch to his peers and create safety posters when he returned.

Another of New Direction’s central challenges is simply to get students to show up. Their average attendance rate at previous schools was 63 percent. New Directions has boosted that by about 10 percentage points, but the staff’s twice-weekly attendance meetings, texts and calls to students in the mornings, and attendance-based raffle tickets are designed to increase that number even further.

“This school cares more,” said eighth-grader Keyia, 15, who said she’s used to getting calls at home from faculty. “This school makes sure everybody is on point.”

Unchartered territory

Samuel Bromfield, site director for Wediko Children's Services, which provides counselors and other student supports.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Samuel Bromfield, site director for Wediko Children’s Services, which provides counselors and other student supports.

By the time many students reach New Directions, they are in danger of dropping out of school completely.

Most have been held back before and many are far below grade level – one seventh-grade teacher said some of her students entered at a first-grade reading level. This was reflected in the school’s first-year state test results: Just 1 percent of students passed the English tests, and even fewer passed math.

As the school tries to catch students up, it is relying on technology — students do much of their work individually on laptops — and a “mastery-based” approach, where students must demonstrate a skill through tasks and projects before they can advance. The school would like to be able to promote students mid-year who complete their work rapidly, but it is still waiting for approval from the city, Waslawski said.

Next year, Waslawski plans to add the early high school grades, since he is convinced it will take several years to steer his students back onto the route to graduation. Along the way, he hopes the city will consider “fair metrics” to rate his school, since his students are starting from so far behind. (An education department spokesman said the city is still deciding how to evaluate New Directions due to its “particularly unique needs.”)

Beyond the very low test scores, the school also received poor reviews last year from some teachers. Only 38 percent of the faculty who took a city survey said they would recommend New Directions to parents, while 75 percent said that order and discipline are not maintained at the school. Half called Waslawski an effective manager.

Waslawski said the school’s approach to discipline and academics was new and challenging, and noted that three of the school’s original 11 teachers did not return. He said he had brought in new academic coaches to support his teachers, but creating a new school for struggling students is also inherently tough.

“This is the work,” he said. “This is what we signed up for.”

Ashley Grant, a staff attorney at Advocates for Children and the lead author of the report on overage middle-school students, said her 16-year-old client, an eighth-grader at New Directions, has already benefitted from being around classmates her age for “the first time in years.”

“New Directions is really in uncharted territory here,” she 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 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