empty nest

Simmering tensions at NEST+M boil over on Curriculum Night

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Kathy Stokes, a PTA officer, spoke to a NEST+m mother who did not know that teachers were boycotting Curriculum Night.

Teachers at a school where hundreds of parents signed a petition against the principal this summer continued the protest today by boycotting Curriculum Night.

Teachers at New Explorations in Science, Technology, and Math, or NEST+M, announced the boycott via email this afternoon, telling parents that Principal Olga Livanis had not soothed relations with the staff after she surprised several of them with “unsatisfactory” ratings.

When parents arrived for the annual introduction to what their children would be learning this year at the citywide school for gifted and talented students, they were told that many teachers had stayed home and given a copy of the email announcing the boycott.

“I feel really awful to hear this,” said Angela Stokes, a former teacher whose daughter is a sophomore in NEST’s high school. “I had this idyllic idea about NEST being away from all the muck and the mire of the DOE. NEST is not immune, I’m finding out.”

Livanis has butted heads with parents and teachers since 2006, when she was installed as principal after the school’s founding leader was removed amid controversy and over some parents’ objections. In June, hundreds of parents registered official objections after several well liked teachers received the low ratings. Their petition, which was delivered to Department of Education officials, also called on Livanis to improve the way she communicates with members of the school community.

But two weeks into the new school year, teachers said today that there had been no changes.

“Our show of solidarity has gone unanswered and ignored by the administration, and no indication has been made that she will address the issues and ensure a positive work environment for the staff and a positive learning environment for the students,” read the teachers’ email today.

Rob Curry-Smithson, a high school history teacher who is also NEST+m’s union chapter leader, said the U-ratings had gone to teachers who had never been alerted that they were performing poorly and that Livanis had cited seemingly minor transgressions, such as one instance of yelling, in her reports. All seven of the teachers who received the low ratings filed grievances, and the only case to be heard so far resulted in the U-rating being overturned, he said.

Still, Curry-Smithson said, Livanis’s apparent capriciousness frightened the teachers.

“We realized that every minute on the job is an increased potential that something could go wrong — so we should at least be paid for that time when we are putting our careers at risk,” he said.

So they asked to be paid overtime for Curriculum Night, which unlike parent-teacher conferences is not required contractually. But Livanis declined to pay teachers for the evening, Curry-Smithson said, and he said when he suggested that Livanis compensate teachers with time instead of money, she declined even to speak with him. The boycott was a last resort, he said.

As parents trickled into the school this evening, Kathy Stokes, c0-vice president of the middle school’s parent-teacher association, informed new arrivals about the boycott and guided them toward teachers who were available.

Some parents grumbled that they had reserved babysitters unnecessarily. But others said the inconvenience was slight.

“I get regular communication from the teacher during the school hours, so I don’t feel like I can complain if she’s not here tonight,” said Chante Brown, the mother of a third-grader and a ninth-grader at NEST.

Curry-Smithson said he expected about 80 percent of teachers to stay home but that some untenured teachers were too concerned about repercussions to participate. An email from NEST’s lower school assistant principal to parents this afternoon listed several teachers who had already alerted him that they would not be present and noted that it looked like all fourth- and fifth-grade teachers would stay home.

“I cannot confirm some teachers, as I have been told that they don’t know themselves whether they are staying or not,” wrote the assistant principal, Nicholas Patrello. He added, “I do apologize about the confusion and frustration.”

Many parents placed the blame squarely on the administration.

“We began to hear rumblings about this last week, but to be fair I think [teachers] were trying until the last minute to find a compromise,” Stokes said. “I look forward as a parent to Curriculum Night and I’m disappointed that the administration couldn’t work with the teachers to make the night happen.”

“I think there has been some hope that with the new chancellor there could be an opportunity for an administrative change,” said a parent who skipped Curriculum Night to show support for her daughter’s teachers. “There have many unhappy teachers at NEST for a long time. It is such a shame as the school has enormous potential to be a fantastic.”

NEST+m teachers’ letter to parents is below.

Dear Parents,

As NEST+m UFT reps, we want to let you know why many of the NEST+m staff will not be present for Curriculum Night. Last year, we expressed our grievances concerning the way our school has been run to Dr. Livanis, but to no avail.  Our show of solidarity has gone unanswered and ignored by the administration, and no indication has been made that she will address the issues and ensure a positive work environment for the staff and a positive learning environment for the students.

When Dr. Livanis unfairly and without warning rated seven teachers  unsatisfactory last year, we became concerned. This rating is not a minor thing; it is the first step in stripping someone of their teaching license, (which makes it impossible for that teacher to take a job elsewhere, and freezes their salary, resulting in a loss of approximately one thousand dollars to the teacher). Many of the teachers who received a “U” rating have been told by Dr. Livanis that she considers them fine teachers, and that the rating was not a reflection of their performance. While it is always nice to hear that your supervisor thinks you are doing a good job, it is a strange and disconcerting thing to have one thing said to your face and another one recorded on an official record which will follow you. Since many of these teachers are known to be great teachers who go above and beyond the requirements of their job, there is concern amongst the staff that our careers are subject to arbitrary and unfair decisions by our principal.

While Dr. Livanis has made no visible effort to assuage our fears, we have become concerned that anything we say or do might be twisted and used to torpedo our career. Because we are unsure how else to express our grave dissatisfaction with the status-quo, we have decided that, at a minimum, we need to ensure that we don’t endanger our jobs by working unpaid, non-contractual hours. While in the past we have gone beyond our job description and worked overtime without pay on Curriculum Night, this year we asked to be paid for those hours. This is a practice which is normal at many schools in NYC, and is in keeping with our contract. When Dr. Livanis denied our request, we were concerned about deserting parents who had already planned to attend. So we offered a compromise. We offered to work the hour and a half if she would count that as one of our 45 minute after-school meetings that are required by contract. As she has refused this compromise as well, we feel it necessary to stand firm on this issue — something we have not done in the past.

We apologize for the last minute nature of this decision.  We have been trying to resolve this with compromise up through today but we have been unsuccessful.  We deeply regret any inconveniences this has caused families, and we regret not being able to reach a settlement that would have allowed us all to share this evening together.

Thank you for your understanding and support,

The NEST+m UFT Consultation Committee

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