struggling school skirmish

After Tisch attacks Renewal goals, city says school closures possible next year

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch (left) and city schools Chancellor Carmen FariƱa.

Outgoing state Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch took a swipe at New York City’s school-improvement program Thursday, saying the city is permitting “failure” at certain troubled schools and setting “ridiculous” goals at others.

Her comments came after Chalkbeat reported that the city has quietly given the 94 struggling schools in its $400 million “Renewal” improvement program three years to hit one-year targets. One of the schools, M.S. 53 in Queens, has until 2017 to boost its students’ average reading score from 2.14 to 2.15.

“At some point, everyone has to stop being ridiculous,” Tisch, New York’s top education official, said in an interview Thursday. “2.14 to 2.15? I mean, give me a break.”

She went on: “If that’s OK, then their definition of OK and my definition of OK are two very different definitions.”

Even though Tisch’s influence over state education policy is waning — she announced a few weeks ago that she will step down from her post in March — city education department officials were quick to fire back.

Spokeswoman Devora Kaye said the city’s Renewal school goals are more demanding than ones the state has mandated for schools in its “receivership” program, which puts outside groups in charge of low-performing schools that fail to improve.

“The concrete targets we’ve set exceed those set by the state for its receivership program, established under Chancellor Tisch,” Kaye said in a statement. (The state has not yet publicly released the receivership goals.)

Mayor Bill de Blasio and city schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña have repeatedly said they will consider closing any schools that continue to flounder after receiving extra student services and teacher training. Kaye emphasized that point Thursday, and even implied that officials are considering shuttering some schools next year.

“We will make the difficult decision about where that is necessary for the coming school year,” she said. “We are demanding sustained progress, and will hold schools accountable if it’s not made.”

Tisch, who has said she intends to weigh in on contentious education issues before leaving her role, has expressed doubts before about de Blasio’s approach to struggling schools.

This spring, she called it a mistake not to shut down certain chronically low-performing schools, and last year she said the state would move to close such schools if necessary.

On Thursday, she ratcheted up that critique, saying that it is “deeply frustrating” to watch certain schools go through round after round of interventions without making real progress.

“If you sit with persistent failure and you tolerate it, then by definition you are destroying the educational pathways for some kids,” she said. “At some point, you’ve got to pull the plug.”

Tisch is not the only state official to clash with de Blasio, a Democrat, over how to improve troubled schools.

State Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Republican, questioned whether de Blasio had a convincing strategy when lawmakers were debating earlier this year whether to extend his control over the city school system. And de Blasio forcefully rejected Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s receivership scheme, arguing that the city is best qualified to revamp its schools.

John King, who recently left his position as state education commissioner, rejected the de Blasio administration’s initial plans for two of its lowest-performing schools. He demanded that the city establish a process to replace ineffective teachers and administrators at schools, which it did through a deal with the teachers and principals unions.

King’s replacement, MaryEllen Elia, has signaled that she will give the Renewal program a chance. During a recent tour of a Renewal school, she said the city had put in place supports at the school that have the potential to “make a huge difference.”

“Now,” she added, “we have to watch and see what the outcomes are.”

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