School safety

Five things to know about school resource officers in Tennessee

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Gov. Bill Haslam’s task force on school safety has identified expanded coverage by trained school safety staff — known as school resource officers, or SROs — as an immediate priority for Tennessee.

In response, the Republican governor, who is against a legislative proposal to arm some teachers with handguns, has set aside extra money in his proposed budget for state grants to help vulnerable districts pay for SROs and other security needs.

As Tennessee reviews the safety of its 1,700-plus public schools after this year’s fatal shooting rampage at a Florida high school, here are five things to know about its SRO program:

1. SROs have been around in Tennessee since 1993.

Rutherford County was the first to hire them, when then-Sheriff Truman Jones assigned five officers to keep schools secure and serve as safety resources to students and educators. That was five years before the Columbine massacre, where two students shot and killed 13 people at a Colorado high school and put mass school shootings on the national consciousness. “The [national] trend before then was to put officers in schools to build relationships with students and help with kids who were having problems,” said Terry Ashe, executive director of the Tennessee Sheriffs Association. “We knew school shootings were a probability, though. The research was out there.”

2. Tennessee’s program has grown to 991 SROs, covering more than half of the state’s school buildings.

Most schools without an SRO are elementary schools. “If you’re going to have issues, it’s typically been in high schools,” said Justin Grogan, who patrols Moore County High School and heads the Tennessee School Resource Officer Association. Sixteen of the state’s more than 140 school districts have no SROs. Some metropolitan schools are staffed with security officers, which Grogan said do not have to be sworn law enforcement officers, although they can be.

3. How they are funded is a hodgepodge.

SROs do not fall under Tennessee’s education funding formula. Some are paid for by their local school districts, while others are funded by individual counties via the sheriff’s budget. “It’s really all over the map,” said Ashe. Because law enforcement pay varies widely across the state, there’s no accurate figure on how much it would cost for every Tennessee school to have one, according to Ashe.

4. SROs are sworn law enforcement officers.

They must have at least two years of experience in law enforcement, which means that they’ve graduated from one of Tennessee’s police academies with more than 400 hours of training. In addition, they must complete 40 hours of training to obtain their SRO certification, and another 16 hours annually to keep it. Much of the annual training is conducted by the state SRO association at its annual conference in June. SROs also must undergo annual training in firearms.

5. They answer to their sheriff or police chief, not their principal or superintendent.

Like any law enforcement officer, SROs carry a gun and a badge and have the authority to make arrests. They also must file a report on any crime or arrest with their local law enforcement department, which then sends the information to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. “There are a lot of bad situations that SROs have stopped that you never hear about,” said Ashe. “Eighty-five percent of these incidents is somebody coming in from the outside — maybe a parent, maybe a former student. We’re intervening every day. You just don’t read about it in the newspapers.”


Who’s in and who’s not? Chicago board to announce new boundaries for popular Taft High

PHOTO: Tim Boyle / Getty Images
Taft High School is one of Chicago Public Schools' most overenrolled campuses. In 2019, it will spin off its freshman class to a separate campus.

The Chicago school board will announce much-anticipated new attendance boundaries on Tuesday for one of its most crowded schools, William Howard Taft High School on the Northwest side.

Starting next school year, Taft will spin off one grade level to a new campus, the Taft Freshman Academy, which is expected to enroll 1,000 freshman. Chicago Public Schools will give those living within the new attendance area priority in enrollment in the new school and in the existing high school.

“I look forward to what CPS has to say about the new campus,” Taft Principal Mark Grishaber told Chalkbeat Chicago. “This is good for every kid on the Northwest side.”

A community meeting on the new boundaries will be held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Wilbur Wright College, 4300 N. Narragansett Ave.

At its regular monthly meeting at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, the board will discuss the Taft boundaries and also what to do about its underrolled schools, which are primarily neighborhood schools.  A state law signed in August requires Chicago to make a plan for intervening in schools that do not have enough students.

The Chicago school district faces a critical decline in enrollment, but still plans to invest $1 billion to shore up existing schools and build new ones.


hiring crisis

Want ideas for easing Illinois’ teacher shortage? Ask a teacher.

PHOTO: Beau Lark / Getty Images

West Prairie High School is feeling the teacher shortage acutely.

The school — in a town of 58 people in downstate Illinois — hasn’t had a family and consumer science teacher for eight years, a business teacher for four years, or a health teacher for two years. The vacancies are among the state’s 1,400 teaching jobs that remained unfilled last school year.

To alleviate a growing teacher shortage, Illinois needs to raise salaries and provide more flexible pathways to the teaching profession, several teachers have urged the Illinois State Board of Education.  

“If we want top candidates in our classrooms, we must compensate them as such,” said Corinne Biswell, a teacher at West Prairie High School in Sciota.

Teachers, especially those in the rural districts most hurt by teacher shortages, welcomed the board’s broad-brush recommendations to address the problem. The board adopted seven proposals, which came with no funding or concrete plans, on Wednesday. It does not have the authority to raise teacher pay, which is negotiated by school districts and teacher unions.

“I appreciate that ISBE is looking for creative ways not only to approve our supply of teachers, but looking at the retention issues as well,” said Biswell, who favored the recommendations.

Goals the board approved include smoothing the pathway to teaching, providing more career advancement, and improving teacher licensing, training and mentorship.

However,  teachers attending the monthly meeting  disagreed over a proposal to eliminate a basic skills test for some would-be teachers and to adjust the entrance test to help more midcareer candidates enter the profession.

Biswell and other teachers warned that some of the recommendations, such as dropping the test of basic skills for some candidates,  could have unintended consequences.

Biswell urged the state board to change credentialing reviews to help unconventional candidates enter teaching. When issuing a teaching credential the state should look at a candidate’s work and college grades, and a mix of skills, she said, and also consider adjusting the basic-skills test that many midcareer candidates take — and currently fail to pass.

She told the board a warning story of teacher licensing gone wrong. When a vocational education teacher failed to pass the teacher-entry tests, he instead filed for a provisional certification. That meant he ended up in the classroom without enough experience.

“We are effectively denying candidates student teaching experiences and then hiring them anyway simply because we do not have any other choice,”  said Biswell, who is a fellow with Teach Plus, a nonprofit that works to bring teacher voices into education policy.

But other teachers want to make sure that credentialing stays as rigorous as possible. In the experience of Lisa Love, a Teach Plus fellow who teaches at Hawthorne Scholastic Academy, a public school in Chicago, too many new teachers don’t know what they are in for. “Being able to be an effective classroom teacher requires a lot of practice and knowledge and education that you can bring to the table in the classroom,” Love said. “Unprepared teachers are more likely to leave the classroom.”

Over the years, she has seen that attrition.

Teach Plus surveyed more than 600 teachers around Illinois about the teacher shortage and how to solve it. The survey found that most teachers wanted a basic skills requirement but also flexibility in meeting it.

The survey also found a divide between current and prospective teachers, as well as rural and urban teachers, on several issues. For example, the majority of current teachers said it wasn’t too difficult to become a teacher, while people trying to enter the profession disagreed. Educators in cities and suburbs didn’t find it too hard to become a teacher, while teachers in rural areas did.

Better pay came up for several teachers interviewed by Chalkbeat.

Illinois legislators passed a bill to set a minimum salary of $40,000 for teachers in Illinois, but Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed it last summer.

Love noted that she has spent years getting advanced degrees related to teaching. And yet, she said, “I don’t make the salary of a doctor or lawyer but I have the same loans as a doctor or lawyer and the public doesn’t look to me with the same respect.”

But how much do the tests actually measure who might be good at teaching in the classroom? Gina Caneva, a teacher at Lindblom Math and Science Academy, said that written or video tests are very little like the daily work of being an educator. “Being a teacher, you are really out there in the field, you have to respond on your feet,” she said. “These tests don’t equate to the teaching profession.”

Chicago Public Schools is trying to tackle the teacher shortage problem by offering a teacher training program that would offer would-be teachers the chance to get into a classroom and earn a master’s degree in two years.

Some educators also suggest that there are region-specific barriers that could go. Caneva suggests that Chicago get rid of the requirement that teachers live in the city, and instead draw talent from the broader Midwest.

The seven measures the state board passed to improve the teaching force came from Teach Illinois: Strong Teachers, Strong Classrooms, a yearlong partnership between the board and the Joyce Foundation.