First Person

When my student was assaulted and traumatized, my school didn’t know what to do. Let’s change that.

The author with students.

Mayor de Blasio recently announced that last year was the safest on record for New York City schools. While I know that teachers like myself are celebrating this milestone, the fact is that when a violent act does occur in our schools, the city’s guidance and support can be worryingly absent.

This became obvious to me when my eighth-grade student Elijah began acting out following a violent attack. With more specific training, I think my colleagues and I could have done better to help him, instead of isolating him, during his time of need.

When I first met Elijah, a precocious and gregarious teenager, he was always eager to share family photos and lively updates on his newest adventures. We joked about subjects ranging from his sister’s ugly sweater party to their trip to Disney.

But one morning Elijah entered my classroom without his trademark smile. It took some time before he explained how his walk home the day before had been so different from my own.

In a case of mistaken identity, a group of teenagers had shoved Elijah and his cousin to the ground and aimed a gun at their backs. Thankfully, Elijah’s emotional intelligence far surpasses his 13 years, and using his characteristic savvy and charm, he de-escalated the situation and the boys let them go.

While Elijah escaped physically unscathed, scars aren’t always physical. The experience of being attacked stayed with him, and despite our best efforts, my colleagues and I had not learned the skills to help him heal. An aura of gloom became Elijah’s new trademark, and he began acting out.

Without the tools to support students struggling with their emotions, teachers routinely sent Elijah to the “stay back” room, bleakly and aptly named for the space where we are forced to send “troublemakers” in order to continue teaching without disruption. A damaging substitute for the mental health aid these students need, the “stay back” room functions like a holding cell in which teachers become guards for students excluded from the classroom.

It was in this room one day that Elijah and his friend argued. The supervising teacher did not have the tools to de-escalate the dispute, which quickly grew physical. Elijah was suspended for 15 days.

My school’s inability to meet Elijah’s needs isn’t due to a lack of empathy, interest, or investment in its students. Our entire staff cares deeply about Elijah, but individual staff members knew few alternatives to address his behavior besides punitive discipline.

This is true not only at my school, but schools across the city. This May, Educators for Excellence surveyed 2,100 city educators on how best to expand non-punitive practices. Fifty-seven percent identified ongoing training and consistent implementation as the most important factors in that work.

Teachers should learn to use “restorative circles,” a dialoguing tool, to create space for students to express themselves in productive ways and foster a sense of community. They should learn to recognize and defuse conflicts and reintegrate students into the school community when a crisis does occur. With more experience with those techniques, I think we could have both better prevented and managed Elijah’s behavior while helping him grow.

New York City has been promoting these practices, and helping some teachers in some schools get that kind of training. But like many initiatives, it is starting small. I hope all of New York City’s teachers get that chance to learn how to best help students like Elijah.

Melissa Dorcemus is a middle school special education teacher in Manhattan and a member of Educators for Excellence-New York.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below:

Mergers and acquisitions

In a city where many charter schools operate alone, one charter network expands

Kindergarteners at Detroit's University Prep Academy charter school on the first day of school in 2017.

One of Detroit’s largest charter school networks is about to get even bigger.

The nonprofit organization that runs the seven-school University Prep network plans to take control of another two charter schools this summer — the Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies elementary and the Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies middle/high school.

The move would bring the organization’s student enrollment from 3,250 to nearly 4,500. It would also make the group, Detroit 90/90, the largest non-profit charter network in the city next year — a distinction that stands out in a city when most charter schools are either freestanding schools or part of two- or three-school networks.

Combined with the fact that the city’s 90 charter schools are overseen by a dozen different charter school authorizers, Detroit’s relative dearth of larger networks means that many different people run a school sector that makes up roughly half of Detroit’s schools. That makes it difficult for schools to collaborate on things like student transportation and special education.

Some charter advocates have suggested that if the city’s charter schools were more coordinated, they could better offer those services and others that large traditional school districts are more equipped to offer — and that many students need.

The decision to add the Henry Ford schools to the Detroit 90/90 network is intended to “create financial and operational efficiencies,” said Mark Ornstein, CEO of UPrep Schools, and Deborah Parizek, executive director of the Henry Ford Learning Institute.

Those efficiencies could come in the areas of data management, human resources, or accounting — all of which Detroit 90/90 says on its website that it can help charter schools manage.

Ornstein and Parizek emphasized that students and their families are unlikely to experience changes when the merger takes effect on July 1. For example, the Henry Ford schools would remain in their current home at the A. Alfred Taubman Center in New Center and maintain their arts focus.  

“Any changes made to staff, schedule, courses, activities and the like will be the same type a family might experience year-to-year with any school,” they said in a statement.