Tips from the Top

Visiting a troubled school, Fariña mixes praise with pointed advice

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Chancellor Carmen Fariña on one of her hundreds of school visits.

When P.S. 123 in Central Harlem has popped up in the news over the past year, the coverage has not been flattering.

There was the story this month highlighting the school’s “nightmarish” test scores and “unsafe” conditions, one last summer citing its many suspensions for students’ “physically aggressive behavior,” and another in October where a principal unfavorably compared P.S. 123’s academic record to that of his charter school.

So when Chancellor Carmen Fariña invited reporters Tuesday to join her and P.S. 123’s principal on a tour of the school, which is part of the city’s new turnaround program for struggling schools, she mixed advice for the principal with praise for bright spots at the school that haven’t grabbed headlines.

As with other schools in the turnaround program, Fariña said P.S. 123 must get students to show up to class every day, weave writing instruction into every subject, and better train teachers while urging the least effective ones to leave. But, noting the school’s many students who are homeless or have special needs, Farina said Principal Melitina Hernandez has already done great work reaching out to their families and using the arts to draw students into school.

“Let me tell you something: There’s a lot here to build on,” Fariña told Hernandez, who took over the school in 2013, as they walked shoulder-to-shoulder down a hallway. “There’s nothing here that you don’t see progress and you don’t see things moving forward.”

During her tour of P.S. 123, Fariña spoke to students in a fifth-grade math class.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
During her tour of P.S. 123, Fariña spoke to students in a fifth-grade math class.

P.S. 123 is in the city’s turnaround program, called School Renewal, because it ranks among the bottom bottom 5 percent of schools in the state and the lowest quarter of schools in the city. Last year, 5 percent of its students passed the state math exams, and 9 percent passed English.

It was those scores that Khari Shabazz, principal of Success Academy Harlem 5 charter school, compared to his school’s last October. The charter school, which shares a building with P.S. 123, had 97 percent of its third and fourth-graders pass last year’s state math exams, and 68 percent pass English. (Citywide, 34 percent of students earned proficient scores in math, and about 28 percent in English.)

Fariña on Tuesday called such a comparison “definitely apples and oranges.” She noted that nearly a third of P.S. 123 students have disabilities, about one-fifth are still learning English, and more than a quarter live in temporary housing. She said the lottery admissions system at charter schools attracts the most involved parents, and she again suggested that some charter schools shed students in a way district schools do not.

“We would like to be at that percentage,” Fariña said, referring to the Success school’s exam pass rates, “but we keep all our kids from the day they walk in the building.”

Still, Fariña made clear that she expects P.S. 123’s test scores to rise regardless of the many challenges its students face. And Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has been touting the Renewal program in recent weeks, has insisted that he will consider closing schools that fail to improve even with the added support.

Hernandez said she has already received some help through the Renewal program, which launched in November. Turnaround officials have visited the school and offered feedback, she has been given budgeting assistance (though no extra funding yet), and 10 teachers have attended training sessions for a particular writing program, she said.

But, unlike a small group of high-priority struggling schools that the city has given intensive help since the start of the school year, P.S. 123 has only recently received support through the program, Hernandez said. For example, the city has not sent the school a principal mentor or on-site teacher coaches or monitored its progress throughout the fall as it did with some of those early-intervention schools.

“We’re actually a Renewal school starting tier two, is it? Stage two. We’re just beginning the process,” Hernandez said, adding later that she had sent her teachers to training sessions and brought in coaches well before the Renewal program got underway. “We already started a lot of this work through our own urgency.”

Fariña offered P.S. 123 Principal Melitina Hernandez advice about how to get students to show up to school and how to weed out ineffective teachers.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Fariña offered P.S. 123 Principal Melitina Hernandez advice about how to get students to show up to school and how to weed out ineffective teachers.

That work was aided by earlier improvement programs for low-performing schools, including a three-year, $4.1 million federal grant that P.S. 123 won in 2013 to fund teacher training along with arts and sports activities.

During Tuesday’s tour, Hernandez said the school had used that money to install electronic whiteboards in classrooms, fill a technology room with top-of-the-line computers, and add after-school and Saturday classes. The school has also established a competitive chess team, healthy cooking classes for families, and a partnership with a nonprofit that sends teaching artists into schools, Hernandez said.

Fariña commended those efforts, but also made plain her own priorities for the Renewal schools.

Throughout her visit, she said P.S. 123 needs to stay focused on improving its writing instruction and tying it into every class. (She told two different art instructors to add more writing to their projects, and asked a kindergarten student to show her some of her writing.) She also said Hernandez must boost the school’s attendance rate, perhaps by having older students check in on younger ones through a “phone buddy” system or buying alarm clocks for others.

And she said the principal must weed out unmotivated or unsatisfactory teachers by documenting their performance problems and advising them to look for jobs elsewhere. After they stopped by the classroom of a teacher whom Hernandez said she had concerns about, Fariña told her to observe the teacher “many, many more times a day.”

After the tour, Fariña explained that principals can use such methods to convince teachers who are not a good fit for a school to leave.

“Not everything has to be knocking people on the head,” she said. “But if that’s what it takes, we’re happy to do that as well.”

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