clashes in the space wars

Success Academy co-location exposes fault lines among de Blasio’s allies

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Success Academy parents testify at an April Panel for Educational Policy meeting.

The city’s controversial plan to place a charter school in a South Bronx building was narrowly approved Wednesday night, but not before drawing rare “nay” votes from two of the mayor’s own appointees to the city’s education policy board.

In an unusually divided 7-5 vote, the Panel for Educational Policy voted to move three grades of an expanding Success Academy elementary school into a building with three existing middle schools next year. The district schools are all a part of the city’s School Renewal turnaround program, and will have to give up space just as they begin to craft improvement plans — a scenario that appeared to test the patience of some of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s allies.

“I cannot in good conscience vote for a co-location of a charter school with three Renewal schools,” panelist Norm Fruchter said at the end of the meeting. “So I vote no.”

Elzora Cleveland, another mayoral appointee, also voted no.

The dissent is the latest illustration of how the panel’s dynamics have changed since the Bloomberg administration, when mayoral appointees voted in favor of the city’s proposals or were replaced before they could vote against them. (The mayor appoints eight of 13 members.)

The co-location debate also encapsulates a number of complicated problems the education department is facing: The need to support the schools in the Renewal program and its need to follow through on promises of space in public buildings to Success Academy; its desire for schools in shared buildings to work together and the three Bronx schools’ vehement protest of Success Academy’s arrival; and its need for space-sharing proposals to earn panel members’ approval while giving members the independence de Blasio has promised them.

Concerns about struggling schools facing co-locations aren’t new. At February’s panel meeting, in which three of eight co-location plans affected Renewal schools, Fruchter said he worried the space plans could undermine the city’s goal to provide the schools with extra resources like health clinics or additional counseling services. Chancellor Carmen Fariña said then that those worries were unwarranted, a message she repeated on Wednesday.

This time, Fruchter, a longtime education activist and policy analyst for the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, took his concerns a step further, breaking ranks for the first time since joining the panel 15 months ago.

“I try as best I can to support the chancellor because I think she’s doing a Herculean job in very difficult circumstance and she has terrific educational instincts,” Fruchter said.

Fruchter’s vote raised eyebrows among some of his colleagues, with one saying it would force some soul-searching as the city proposes more co-locations.

“For me, it was personally newsworthy and it made me think twice,” mayoral appointee Isaac Carmignani said. “It didn’t change my vote, but I respect Norm a lot. Norm has tons of experience, so that meant a lot.”

Four other co-locations were also approved at the meeting, including a contentious plan to co-locate a New Visions charter school with August Martin High School, also a Renewal school. Fruchter voted for that that proposal, which passed 7-3. Two members, including new mayoral appointee Ben Shuldiner, recused themselves.

The votes came after hours of charged testimony from parents, teachers, and students from several schools affected by the five co-locations being debated. More than 200 Success Academy Bronx 3 supporters, many donning orange shirts, packed into the middle seats of the auditorium of Pace High School in Chinatown, while a smaller group from J.H.S. 145, one of the other schools, huddled in the back.

Angel Cornejo, the mother of a Success Academy second grader, said she wanted the plan to be approved because she was concerned her son would otherwise have to return to a district school.

“He had a hard time the first couple of months. He was reading below level and struggling with math,” Cornejo said. “I was so confused because I was told by his teachers a local district school that he attended in kindergarten that he was right where he needed to be.”

Success Academy, which now operates 32 charter schools across the city, is the city’s top-performing charter network. But its strict discipline practices and intense academic focus, much of which is geared toward the state’s annual tests, as well as its high-profile lobbying efforts, have also attracted fierce criticism.

And while political tensions may have eased between Success Academy founder Eva Moskowitz and de Blasio since they faced off over school space last year, Wednesday night’s close vote shows that the network is still deeply divisive. Even panel members who voted for the proposal criticized what they called overly dramatic testimony from parents.

Jim Donohue, an English teacher at J.H.S. 145, testifies in opposition to a co-location plan involving Success Academy.
Jim Donohue, an English teacher at J.H.S. 145, testifies in opposition to a co-location plan involving Success Academy.

“Tonight’s comments confirmed to me that stakeholders at Success Academy are only concerned about themselves,” said panel member Vanessa Leung, a mayoral appointee.

Adding to the administration’s school-space headache is that Fariña and de Blasio are working to convince the state legislature that they should hold onto their control of the school system. The city’s mayoral control law expires at the end of June, and lawmakers have expressed concerns that the panel is too strongly connected to the mayor.

“We’re concerned about who gets appointed, how it gets appointed, how decisions get made,” said Walter Mosley, Jr., a Brooklyn Democrat and member of the Assembly education committee. “Right now, it feels as though nothing has changed.”

The building that the Success Academy school will enter next year has the capacity to serve more than 1,700 students, but is only currently serving about 920, according to the city’s (often disputed) estimates. As many as 120 third-grade students from Success will join them next year.

Success Academy will take over 14 full-size rooms next year, while the largest middle school in the building, J.H.S. 145, will give up nine of its 27 full-size rooms. Urban Science Academy will lose two of 20 rooms, and New Millennium Academy, the smallest school, will lose three of 15 rooms.

In response to concerns that the co-location would harm the city’s plans for its Renewal program, Fariña said her vision for the schools did not necessarily mean that they would require more space.

But Fariña’s comments did little to assuage some concerns.

Jim Donohue, who has taught English at J.H.S. 145 for the last 16 years, said taking away space sent mixed messages about his school’s future.

“What I find ironic and frustrating is that just as they’re saying, ‘You’re a Renewal school, you’re a school in need, here are resources,’” Donohue said. “On the other hand they’re saying, ‘Here’s an eviction notice.”

Correction: A previous version of this story said two members abstained from a vote on a co-location involving New Visions charter school, rather than recused themselves.

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