parent voice

How Crown Heights parents derailed a potential charter school co-location in one week

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Rhonda Morman, coordinator of the gifted and talented program at M.S. 61, was among several members of the school community to attend a recent Panel for Educational Policy meeting to oppose the potential plans for a charter school co-location.

A group of M.S. 61 parents and alumni stormed into a Panel for Educational Policy meeting last week with a message for Chancellor Carmen Fariña: Don’t send another school into our building.

The parents knew M.S. 61’s building in Crown Heights was getting a close look as the city hunted for space for Launch Expeditionary Learning Charter School, one of four charter schools the city has committed to finding space for under a new state law. In matching M.S. 61 T-shirts, they told Fariña they wanted nothing to do it.

One week later, Fariña told them she had heard their concerns.

“We’re not going to put a charter school in this building,” Fariña announced to an auditorium full of parents Wednesday night before being drowned out by applause.

The decision underscores how seriously the new administration is taking the concerns of school communities, and signifies that the Department of Education is less willing than in years past to pick fights with district schools to accommodate charter schools. It also illustrates how tricky it will be for officials to come up with space-sharing arrangements for new charter schools that are now guaranteed access to city facilities (or city funding), since few schools are eager for the complications that come with sharing space.

While Fariña didn’t explain the city’s decision making process, she indicated that she had listened to the parents and teachers of M.S. 61, who called their lobbying effort a success. That culminated last week at Murry Bergtraum High School, where Fariña was meeting with the Panel for Educational Policy. At the meeting, the parents held signs, spoke of their school’s desire to expand, and declared their opposition to sharing space with Launch Expeditionary, which will add high-school grades in the 2015-16 year.

“We need to remain one school in one building in order to see our vision completed,” said Karone Playfair, M.S. 61’s parent association president.

M.S. 61 currently uses up just over 50 percent of its building, and last year’s enrollment of 777 students is the lowest it’s been in the last two decades, according to city data. But Playfair said that its enrollment is low because it has been capped by the Department of Education. (There were 810 applications for 203 spots open in M.S. 61’s three programs last year, according to data obtained by DNAinfo.)

The middle school, which includes a gifted and talented program, is made up entirely of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch and 98 percent of students are black or Hispanic. Sixteen percent of students were proficient on last year’s math tests and 19 percent were proficient on the English tests, both below district averages.

Shannon Burton, who is in his second year as principal, said he’s added courses and that he’s already seeing more demand for the school. On Wednesday, he said he had urged city officials to give the school time to add students and improve.

“Give us one more year,” Burton said. “I’ll be at the right numbers.”

Chancellor Carmen Fariña huddles with District 17 Superintendent Clarence Ellis at a town hall meeting at M.S. 61.
PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Chancellor Carmen Fariña huddles with District 17 Superintendent Clarence Ellis at a town hall meeting at M.S. 61.

Last week, a working group appointed by the mayor released a list of recommendations for the city to consider as it revamps its policies for co-locating schools, a practice that has often left schools fighting over access to common facilities like gyms and cafeterias. One of the group’s top recommendations was for the city to be more transparent with existing schools about possible co-location plans.

Playfair said that an education department official first informed the school that a co-location was possible on Oct. 7 as he toured the building with parents and the school leadership team. But the parents grew increasingly worried when they learned that the same official had visited the school unannounced on three subsequent occasions to view space in the basement.

“You can come in, but what are you doing sneaking around?” Burton said.

On Wednesday, district superintendent Clarence Ellis said he wasn’t sure why the city backed off its pursuit of the space, and Fariña did not stick around after the town hall to discuss the issue. School officials are now discussing how to use the extra building space for other purposes, he said.

“If the principal here can up his numbers, if he goes out and parents want to bring their kids here because neighbors are saying good things are happening here, I’m encouraging that,” Ellis said.

Fariña still faces the complicated task of accommodating the space needs of district and now some charter schools. At the meeting, she also offered perhaps her most ardent public defense of charter schools yet, along with a challenge to traditional public schools.

“As long as parents choose to send their kids to charter schools, because it is parent choice, there is always going to be a need for them,” Fariña said. “And I am not going to say what parents should choose to do. However, I will say that public schools need to be a little bit more competitive. I’m urging principals not to focus on what other people are doing, but what can I do to make this school the best school possible and how do I get the word out there.”

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