Algebra for All

In first ‘Algebra for All’ effort, city will push schools to centralize fifth grade math

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Math supplies line the a fifth-grade classroom at P.S. 95 in Queens.

In a change that could shift the way elementary schools work across New York City, officials want more fifth-graders to learn math from teachers chosen to focus on the subject, rather than their general classroom teachers.

The city will begin centralizing fifth-grade math next year at interested schools, according to a memo sent to principals this week, and will spread the policy further over the next five years. That memo and other documents posted online for principals describe the change as the first step in the city’s campaign to make sure more eighth-graders are prepared for algebra, a goal Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled last fall.

“We know this initiative is a big step forward,” an education department document reads, “and are working to develop both the operational and instructional supports schools will need to be successful.”

At most of the city’s elementary schools, core subjects like reading and math are taught by the same classroom teachers. In the memo, officials asked interested principals to designate fifth-grade teachers to take on the central math role for their grade.

Some researchers say quality of math instruction increases with a designated teacher, especially since many elementary-level teachers aren’t excited about math or don’t feel prepared to teach it.

“It’s almost like people who are afraid of math flock to elementary school education,” said Clara Hemphill, one of the authors of a 2015 report from the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs that called for more intensive math teaching in fifth grade.

The introduction of the Common Core standards have added to the complexity of the task. Last year, about 41 percent of city fifth-graders the state’s math exam. Meanwhile, recent statistics show that few are prepared for upper-level math by the time they reach high school.

“With the Common Core, we’re expecting more mathematics understanding from teachers, and this enables districts to focus resources,” said Diane Briars, the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

“Departmentalizing” math allows teachers with math anxiety to focus on other subjects, Hemphill said, and leaves those passionate about math to teach it. That’s what happened at the Girls Prep charter schools when they separated math instruction, according to Ian Rowe, the leader of the Public Prep charter school network.

“The folks who are our dedicated math teachers love the fact that they can really dive deep and really focus on not just procedural math but really getting our scholars critical thinking skills in math,” he said.

Some schools have long used or experimented with more specialized approaches. P.S. 183 Robert L. Stevenson and the Lower Lab School, both on the Upper East Side, have separate math instruction, Hemphill said.

Others were surprised that this would be the city’s move to improve math instruction.

Darlene Cameron, principal of STAR Academy-P.S. 63 in the East Village, said she would have questions about placing the responsibility for a grade’s math instruction in the hands of a single teacher, especially since so many students are already far behind when they reach fifth grade.

“Are people looking at the fifth-graders we have today? Many of them are still working on basic, single-digit multiplication,” she said.

It’s unclear how many schools the city would like to include in the new plan. Education department officials said the training would be research-based and that schools can choose to participate.

According to the posted overview of the initial “Algebra for All” initiatives, the first wave of participating teachers will have three days of training this spring, 12 days of training over the summer, and sessions throughout next school year.

To Courtney Allison, the deputy director of Math for America and a former sixth-grade teacher, encouraging schools to departmentalize fifth-grade math is a smart idea that could help make sure students arrive prepared for middle school.

“It’s exciting to see them turn their attention to mathematics,” she said of the city.

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