opting out

Opt-out advocates get attention from city’s most powerful couple

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke with concerned parents and teachers at an event focused on opting out of state standardized testing in Brooklyn Monday night.

Parents and teachers on the front lines of the city’s opt-out movement had two unexpected visitors on Monday night.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and his wife, Chirlane McCray, were among about 100 people at an hour-long panel discussion on Monday night in Brooklyn designed to promote “More Than a Score” – a collection of essays and personal accounts of teachers, parents and students refusing to participate in high-stakes standardized testing.

The book’s editor and contributing author, Jesse Hagopian – a Seattle high school history teacher – is related to de Blasio, McCray told Chalkbeat. Diane Ravitch, an education historian who is known for her anti-testing positions and friendly with the mayor, also contributed to the book and was a member of Monday night’s panel.

De Blasio has said he understands parents’ frustrations with state tests that leave their children feeling nervous and overwhelmed. But he and his schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña have stopped short of encouraging parents to opt their students out of the tests, and Fariña told state lawmakers on Tuesday that she supports the tests and their role as a challenge for students.

After the discussion, de Blasio was approached by several small groups of parents and teachers who have participated in the opt-out movement or are working to organize their schools to do so. Kemala Karmen, a mother of two city students, told de Blasio that both of her children’s schools had achieved nearly an 80 percent opt-out rate last year.

“You’ve inspired my focus,” de Blasio told her.

Karmen said she has been involved in organizing against standardized tests since her now 13-year-old daughter was in kindergarten. Karmen has since moved on to speak at other schools about how parents can organize.

The movement “is definitely growing,” she said.

New York City parents opted out more than 1,900 students from taking state tests in 2014 – a big increase from the about 350 students that opted out in 2013, though that group still represents less than half of 1 percent of the city’s test-takers.

The consequences attached to the tests for teachers will be more significant than they were last year, which could spur more anti-testing activism among educators. Gov. Andrew Cuomo didn’t sign a bill he had proposed that would have offered a safety net for teachers rated poorly based on their students’ performance on the tests. This spring’s round of testing will also be the second for city teachers under a new evaluation system that includes consequences for teachers earning two “ineffective” ratings (though few city teachers earned that lowest rating last year).

Cuomo has also proposed making state test scores count for an even bigger portion of a teacher’s evaluation.

But the stakes will actually be lower for students this year. The state has banned schools from using state test scores as a main factor in admissions decisions and decisions about whether a student will be promoted to the next grade, changes that parents weren’t aware of before last spring’s tests. And while some struggling city schools are facing strict deadlines to improve their test scores, Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s new method for judging city schools has moved away from showcasing test-score growth.

Marissa Torres, a teacher at P.S. 261 in Brooklyn, said after the panel Monday that her school has boosted efforts to encourage parents to opt their kids out of state tests. The school’s parent action team recently sent out a letter to all parents in English, Spanish, and Arabic to gauge how many might be interested in opting their child out of state exams, she said.

“We’re much more organized than last year,” she said.

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the boroughs where Kemala Karmen’s children attend school.

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