Tennessee

Five ways White House Director David Johns wants to help black students succeed

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN

White House Director David Johns admittedly gets a little emotional when he talks about improving educational opportunities for black students he affectionally calls “babies” – a nod to his Twitter hashtag #TeachTheBabies.

“Excellence is absent when talking about black kids in education,” said Johns who leads the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans. The two-year-old initiative seeks to spark a conversation between school districts across the country on ways to educate low-income black students. “We live in a society where we believe black students aren’t smart. We hear that more black men are in prison than in college and that’s not true. We need to do a better job of policing what’s said about our babies.”

Johns was one of several guest speakers during the U.S. Department of Education’s “Partners in Progress” back-to-school bus tour who stopped in Memphis Monday.

The visit came shortly after Mayor A C Wharton announced plans to raise the quality of life and achievement for the city’s young African-American and Hispanic men through an initiative called “Inspiring Young Men of Color.” The program will bring together leaders from Memphis non-profits, businesses and schools to study the literacy, health and criminal justice barriers non-white students face.

Johns visited Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, Ford Road and Freedom Preparatory Academy and met with Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson II and Elliot Smalley, chief of staff for the state-run Achievement School District.

Johns participated in an “education rally” where he encouraged students to commit to earning a two- or four-year degree.

“You must pursue your purpose, and what God has for you…” he said.

Here are five takeaways from  Chalkbeat TN’s conversation with Johns.

1.  Black parents must be meaningfully engaged in their child’s eduction.

“We don’t give the black family enough credit,” Johns said. “I have yet to meet a parent who didn’t want a better life for their child. Educators need to be a conduit for helping make the change. They need to distill complex education jargon and turn it into information parents can use. A student’s achievement level can be directly correlated to their parents’ income and level of education.”

2. Throw away the argument that black students don’t test well.

“No Child Left Behind doesn’t mandate the kind of high-stakes teaching to the test that that no parent or educator wants to see our children endure,” Johns said.  “Assessment in its purest form is essential.  There are many ways it happens, from informal, formal and summative.  It’s important for educators to recognize the stereotype threat research in testing (black students).  The key is to not over-test or teach to the test.”

3. Acknowledge that black teachers can have a positive impact on black students.

“I taught kindergarten in New York City,” he said. “I was the only black male classroom teacher. Diversity in the workplace has its benefits.  Research shows that having a black teacher gives affirmation for black students.”

4.  Quality pre-kindergarten through higher learning opportunities is a necessity.

“More energy needs to be put in place to form collaboration between pre-K through 12th grade and higher education so that students are prepared to go to college,” Johns said. “I’ve seen in some cities where there’s a focus on pre-kindergarten, but the work is ensuring that investments are cradle-to-career.”

5. Pre-kindergarten factors into the development of a black student.

“We have to make sure early learners are in a high-quality program,” Johns said. “For example, Latino students are sometimes kept at home and are least likely to be enrolled in a program.  When they are enrolled, it is a quality program.  The work for the African American community is in improving program quality.  Black students may be enrolled in a program, but they are not always in a quality one.”

Read more about the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans here.

Contact Tajuana Cheshier at tcheshier@chalkbeat.org and (901) 730-4013.

Follow us on Twitter: @TajuanaCheshier@chalkbeattn.

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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