nashville renaissance

To figure out how to fix Nashville’s schools, former mayor’s group starts by visiting strong ones

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Sen. Jeff Yarbro observes a math class at Valor Voyager, one of the Valor Collegiate Academies on the same campus, with MNPS School Board member Mary Pierce and Councilman Russ Pulley looking on.

Valor Collegiate Academies and Crieve Hall Elementary School might be on opposite sides of one fault line in Nashville’s education debates, but they are similar in many ways.

Nashville’s school board increasingly opposes privately managed charter schools such as Valor Collegiate, a pair of brand-new schools on Nolensville Pike that chooses students randomly from those who apply. Instead, board members favor schools run by the district, such as Crieve Hall, a 60-year-old school in a leafy neighborhood three miles away that accepts all students who live in its designated zone.

But the schools both have unusually diverse student populations — with a mix of white, Hispanic, and Arab students, of whom about half come from poor families — and some of the highest test scores in Nashville.

So when Karl Dean, who until recently was Nashville’s mayor, decided to launch his new education advocacy organization this week with a series of school tours, Valor and Crieve were the first stops.

The bimonthly tours that Project Renaissance is planning will each visit one district-run school and one charter school. The group’s leaders say the arrangement is meant to help Nashville take a step back from the debate over charter schools that has embroiled its school board for three years, and instead focus on increasing quality in all schools.

“We really just want to highlight the great things that are happening at these schools, and have conversations about what it is that’s working,” said co-CEO Wendy Tucker.

It’s a tried-and-true strategy for education advocates, especially ones who favor charter schools, who want to shift debates away from how schools are run. A nonprofit in New York City organized study tours and training sessions for teachers from both charter and district schools, although the frequency of events has fallen as tensions between the two sectors in that city has grown.

Former mayor Karl Dean looks on as members of the tour sign in at Crieve Hall Elementary.
PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Former mayor Karl Dean looks on as members of the tour sign in at Crieve Hall Elementary.

The idea of erasing divisions could be a hard sell for local critics of charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated. Dean made charter schools a priority during his tenure, and the CEOs he selected for Project Renaissance also have charter school credentials: Co-CEO Justin Testerman is the former head of the Tennessee Charter School Center, and Tucker, who was Dean’s education advisor, is also a member of the State Board of Education, which recently told Nashville it must add two more charter schools that it initially rejected.

The first tour, held Wednesday, contained not a whiff a conflict. It drew about 40 people — including Dean; Vice Mayor David Briley; Democratic State Sen. Jeff Yarbro; and Chris Henson, the interim superintendent of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools — to observe classes at both schools and a presentation by both principals about how they would explain their schools’ successes.

At the end of the tour, the school leaders sat in the library of Crieve Hall, and talked about what their schools have in common. They didn’t swap tips, but they talked about what they both do that other schools could emulate.

Both schools have morning meetings with their students, where students and teachers check in about their overall well-being and develop close relationships.

Both provide teachers time for collaboration. And both recruit heavily from student teachers who have worked at the school for a year, so they can ensure that they add new teachers who are up for the job. (“A year-long interview,” Valor CEO Todd Dickson called it.)

And both said their schools’ diversity was an asset for students. Diversity is a core tenet of Valor’s model, while Crieve Hall’s zone includes residential areas that are mixed in terms of income and ethnicity.

“It helps to have good models for students,” said Crieve Hall principal Linda Mickle. “For students who are still learning English, to be sitting next to someone’s fluent is huge.”

Such balanced students bodies are hard to come by in a district where nearly three quarters of students come from low-income families, and where many neighborhoods are segregated by race and income.

Testerman said future tours will also highlight schools that are able to succeed with almost exclusively low-income populations, which is the norm for many of the city’s schools.

“We want to make sure that we are recognizing excellence across the sectors and the city, and see what they can learn from each other,” he said.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

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.