Marching On

Before Parkland, these Brooklyn teens were already battling gun violence — and now they’re headed to D.C.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Aaliyha Johnson, a sophomore, works to prevent gun violence in her neighborhood through the organization YO S.O.S.

Hours after more than 100,000 New York City students walked out of their schools to protest gun violence, Hernan Davis stepped into the basement of a Crown Heights storefront.

There, he joined a group of about a dozen other teens as they dug back into work that they’ve been tackling since long before last month’s Parkland, Florida, school shooting launched a national student-led movement for stricter gun laws.

“We don’t fear school shootings here,” said Davis, a senior at STAR Early College School. “We’re worried about walking down the street.”

Davis belongs to Youth Organizing to Save our Streets, a program run by the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center since 2011. The organization trains teens who have been touched by gun violence to become community organizers — in the hopes of preventing more loss and hurt. Based in Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant, other groups do similar work across Brooklyn and the Bronx with adults.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Hernan Davis, a member of YO S.O.S. said students “need to know people listen” if schools want to help prevent gun violence.

As part of its after-school programming, high school students meet twice a week to work with professional artists on original rap songs and performance pieces. They train to become peer mediators, plan community events, and recognize trauma in their own lives that, over time, may grow to seem normal.

Whenever there is a shooting, the teens also join the adult-led branch of S.O.S in a neighborhood response, rallying to allow people to share their concerns about gun violence and call for change.

“If you do grow up around violence, it can be easy to get used to it. You go numb,” said Heather Day, who leads youth programs for the organization. “But when people come to YO S.O.S., we do try to create a space where we can actually talk about what you’ve been seeing, maybe start feeling some of that hurt again, but also feel empowered to do something about it.”

The YO S.O.S teens hope to harness the national attention currently heaped on young people fighting gun violence to grow support for their own recommendations for change. They say reform is needed within schools to help keep students safe there — and on the streets.

Among their proposals: training for school staff to recognize how exposure to violence can affect learning and behavior in school, lessons on how to de-escalate potential conflicts, and mediation instead of harsh punishment when problems do arise. The changes they’d like to see fall in line with broader advocacy efforts to change the way students are disciplined and the use of metal detectors in schools — both issues that students raised in a recent town hall organized by Mayor Bill de Blasio in response to the Parkland shooting.

“Schools should make children feel like they always have a place to go, to talk to someone,” said Aaliyha Johnson, a sophomore at John Jay School for Law. “They should build bonds with the kids.”

As they continue their work close to home, YO S.O.S. also wants to join the country’s youth in their push to reduce gun violence. The group is trying to raise $10,000 to travel to Washington, D.C. for the March for Our Lives on March 24. The money would go towards food and travel expenses for about 30 teens, and also help fund paid internships to give teens more of a leading role in the organization.

“This is like the golden age for our generation,” said Cassandra Simpson, a sophomore at Brooklyn High School of the Arts and a member of YO S.O.S. “We’re expressing how we feel and we have a voice.”

NEW MOMENT

Tennessee’s struggling state-run district just hired the ‘LeBron James’ of school turnaround work

PHOTO: Yalonda M. James/The Commercial Appeal
Sharon Griffin was the first chief of schools for Shelby County Schools. Starting in May, she will be the next leader of Tennessee's state-run district.

In hiring a Memphis native to save its most vulnerable schools, Tennessee is hedging its bets that she can finally get the job done.

Sharon Griffin’s new job is to fix the state’s struggling Achievement School District and use her experience to strengthen the relationships with local districts across the state.

But can she right the ship and make everyone happy?

“I know through my experience and the relationships I’ve built that we cannot only focus and prioritize our work, but strengthen the relationship [between local districts and the state] so all of our schools can be great places of learning,” Griffin said during a conference call this week.

Tennessee’s achievement district started out as the cornerstone of the state’s strategy to improve low performing schools in 2012. It promised to vault the state’s 5 percent of lowest-achieving schools to the top 25 percent within five years. But the district hasn’t produced large academic gains. It’s struggling to attract students and retain high-quality teachers. And local districts don’t like it because the state moved in and took over schools without input.

But as Tennessee works to make its state the national model of school achievement, naming a revered, longtime home-grown leader as point person for school turnaround is seen by many as a jolt of badly needed energy, and a savvy move in a state education system divided into many factions.

“I think it is a game-changer,” said Rep. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, who has championed legislation to refine the achievement district. “The ASD badly needs a strong leader…. She definitely could be the bridge to bring us over troubled water in Tennessee.”


Read more about what Griffin’s hire means for the school district she is leaving behind. 


Education Commissioner Candice McQueen stressed during the call that Griffin’s appointment does not mean state-run schools will return to local control, even as she acknowledged that the district is at a turning point. It’s now the state’s tool of last resort.

“Whether that is transitioning a school back into the district when it is ready or whether it’s to intervene and move a school into the Achievement School District,” McQueen said. “This particular moment is about a person who can lead all of the state interventions as well as the specificity of the ASD.”

For Bobby White, the founder and CEO of a Memphis charter organization in the achievement district, the appointment signals a new chapter ahead. Griffin will directly oversee the district’s 30 charter schools in her new role.

He has been around for the highs and lows of Tennessee’s six-year experiment in state-run turnaround work.

“It feels like we got LeBron James, you know?” said White, who runs Frayser Community Schools. “It feels like she will have a vision and take us where we have been needing to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Frayser Community Schools CEO Bobby White has seen the highs and lows of the turnaround district.

Part of that vision will be finding new ways for charter schools and local districts to work together. In her roles as assistant commissioner of School Turnaround and chief of the Achievement School District, Griffin will oversee more than just the state-run district. She will have a hand in turnaround efforts across the state, such as a new partnership zone in Chattanooga. In the partnership zone, state and local leaders will work together to create mini-districts that are freed from many local rules.

Griffin stressed earlier this week that building relationships and fostering collaboration are among her top strengths — efforts that the state has failed in as local districts have sparred with state-runs schools over enrollment, facilities, and sharing student contact information.

“We have a level playing field now,” Griffin said. “I want to be clear, it’s not us against them. It’s a chance to learn not only from what ASD has been able to do alongside charter schools, but a chance to learn from each other as we move forward.”

Marcus Robinson, a former Indianapolis charter leader, said Griffin’s dynamic personality will be enough to get the job done.

“Dr. Griffin is magnetic,” said Robinson, who has helped raise money for Memphis schools through the Memphis Education Fund.

“She is the type of person who disarms people because she’s so authentic and genuine,” he said. “But she’s also experienced and wise and she knows school turnaround work.”

Griffin leaves behind a 25-year award-winning career with Shelby County Schools, the local district in Memphis. She has been a teacher and principal. She spearheaded the district’s turnaround work, and now serves as chief of schools. She will start her new role in May and will stay based in Memphis — something community members have long asked for.

Student at Frayser Achievement Academy.
PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick
A student walks through the hall of Frayser Achievement Elementary School, a state-run school.

Steve Lockwood has watched the state’s reform play out in his Memphis neighborhood of Frayser, whose schools were home to some of the first state takeovers.

When the state first started running schools in Frayser, it was with the promise that the academics and culture would improve, said Lockwood, who runs the Frayser Community Development Corporation.

“The ASD has struggled to deliver on their mission,” Lockwood said. “But the last few months have been modestly encouraging. The ASD has seemed willing to admit mistakes and shortcomings.”

Lockwood said he sees Griffin’s appointment as a commitment by the state to bettering relationships in Memphis — and added that he was surprised she signed up.

“It’s a tribute to the ASD that they have enough juice left to attract someone like Dr. Griffin,” Lockwood said.

unforced error

Mayor de Blasio says education department has culture of frivolous harassment complaints

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio

A “hyper-complaint dynamic” within the city’s education department explains why so few of the harassment claims made against the agency are substantiated, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday.

“It’s pretty well known inside the education world of some people bringing complaints of one type or another for reasons that may not have to do with the specific issue — and this is not just about sexual harassment,” de Blasio said at a press conference.

“We have to investigate everything but it is a known fact that unfortunately there has been a bit of a hyper-complaint dynamic sometimes for the wrong reasons.”

The mayor’s comments come less than a week after the city released statistics that show nearly 500 education department employees filed sexual harassment complaints over the past four years — but just seven of the complaints were substantiated, according to the New York Times. That means only 2 percent of complaints were found to have merit — compared with nearly 17 percent at other agencies citywide.

During a question and answer session with reporters, de Blasio repeatedly said the education department has a cultural problem when it comes to reporting misconduct.

“I can’t parse out for you who was sincere and who was insincere and what type of offense,” de Blasio said. “I can’t get there. I can tell you the fact it’s unfortunately a part of the culture of an agency that is changing that we need to address.”

De Blasio quickly tried to walk back some of his comments on Twitter.

The mayor’s comments come as activists worldwide have raised awareness about sexual harassment, sparking the #MeToo movement. One element of that conversation has been the  importance of taking harassment claims seriously instead of dismissing them. More than three-quarters of the city’s teachers are women, according to the Independent Budget Office.

De Blasio’s responses drew sharp criticism from Michael Mulgrew, president of the city’s teachers union. “Our teachers have a tough enough job that they don’t have time to make frivolous claims,” he said in a statement.

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, who was accused of gender discrimination when he was a top school district official in San Francisco, said the education department has increased the number of investigators who look into such complaints.