principal praise

At Coney Island transfer school, award-winning principal pushes students beyond graduation

Liberation Diploma Plus High School Principal April Leong (right) receives her $10,000 check as a recipient of the 2014 Sloan Public Service Awards.

When they come home from college, Liberation Diploma Plus High alumnae Ashley Brown and Nijah Preacher make a point of seeing their high school principal.

This visit was a special one, however. On Wednesday morning, Brown and Preacher sat in the auditorium with current students who clapped and shouted “We love you!” as Principal April Leong received a 2014 Sloan Public Service Award.

The annual awards honor six “outstanding civil servants,” and each comes with a $10,000 prize. Over 100 students, teachers, alumni and community members attended the ceremony, which Leong called a “humbling” experience.

“I can’t explain or describe what kind of honor this really is,” Leong said. “I’m just doing what I’m supposed to do,” she later insisted.

Specifically, that means running Liberation Diploma Plus, a small transfer high school in Coney Island with approximately 180 students. They arrive after nearly dropping out, or having struggled to earn credits at their original high schools.

Founded in 2007, Liberation is part of the national Diploma Plus network, which helps at-risk students graduate high school and prepare for college. In the 2012-2013 school year, Liberation’s graduation rate was comparable to other transfer schools despite the disruption caused by Superstorm Sandy.

Leong has high expectations: To graduate from Liberation, all students must apply to college, submit a form to qualify for financial aid, create a résumé, write a personal essay, and take part in an internship.

After seven years, Leong believes that Liberation is still evolving. “I never feel like we’ve figured out the recipe,” Leong said. “I don’t think the recipe exists.” And for Leong, there is always more to be done.

“Even hearing my kids talk [at the ceremony], I’m thinking about the kid who didn’t show up today,” she said.

It’s hard to go unnoticed in such a tight-knit community, and the school’s culture of support was evident on Wednesday in more ways than one. A moment of silence was held during the ceremony for Manuel Ocampo, an 18-year-old student who was fatally shot on May 27.

Outside of the auditorium where the ceremony was held hung a large poster dedicated to Ocampo that had been signed by students and staff members.

“His funeral was yesterday,” Leong said quietly. “It’s been a very challenging couple of weeks.”

Adversity is a constant reality for the school community; Leong herself was raised by a single mother and had a child shortly after high school. But at Liberation, students “can let their guard down,” Leong said. “They are not who they are outside.”

Ashley Brown and Nijah Preacher graduated from Liberation Diploma Plus High School three years ago. They still come back to visit Principal Leong.
PHOTO: Jackie Schechter
Ashley Brown and Nijah Preacher graduated from Liberation Diploma Plus High School three years ago. They still come back to visit Principal Leong.

Liberation was also hit hard by Sandy in 2012, with water rising to five feet on the building’s first floor. Leong said she still hasn’t completely recovered. But the process of rebuilding, she felt, re-energized Liberation’s teachers.

After the ceremony, Leong greeted students, staff members, and other attendees, including Brown and Preacher. Both recently completed their third year of college, and Leong has continued to support them, whether by assisting with room deposits and textbook costs or having dinner with them over breaks.

She also helped them adjust to living among other students “who don’t share their common story.” The little things, Leong said, “could have really been the deal breakers for them in so many ways.”

“Even when I need her to yell at me because I know I’m slacking, she’s there,” Brown said. “We’ve both had times where we really wanted to give up. Ms. Leong definitely is more than an old principal, she is our mother figure.”

Preacher, who has dyslexia, switched to Liberation from nearby John Dewey High School, a much larger school where she said she felt “lost” and had a 75 average.

“Here, the environment is different,” Preacher said. She graduated as valedictorian with a 97 average.

“She beat me by half a point,” Brown laughed. “I was so upset.”

Shortly after the ceremony, Leong was approached by a female student smiling sheepishly. It was the absent girl whom Leong had worried about earlier. The problem was that she had mistaken the time, the student explained as Leong hugged her, not that she didn’t want to be there.

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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

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