receiver to the rescue

City adds two schools to turnaround plans after ‘failing’ schools law

Two schools have been added to the city’s broadening school-improvement initiative, months after the state flagged them for posting dismal academic track records for the last decade.

P.S. 64 in the Bronx and M.S. 126 in Brooklyn will receive an extra $1.9 million next year to provide students with additional academic and social services, similar to the changes being planned for 128 “Renewal” and “community” schools, city officials said on Monday, though the schools aren’t officially a part of either program. The de Blasio administration set aside the money in its proposed budget, which includes $162 million to support its initiatives to improve low-performing schools next year.

Their inclusion reflects the city’s move to close the gap between its own school-turnaround efforts and new state mandates.

P.S. 64 and M.S. 126 were among the 12 New York City schools that Gov. Andrew Cuomo singled out as “persistently failing” for having ranked in the bottom 5 percent of state schools in performance on state English and math tests for the last 10 years. Cuomo and the legislature then passed a law that gives districts authority to switch up staff at those schools, fire principals, and negotiate new payscales for teachers, and provides $75 million in funding to support school improvement. (The law adopts a similar definition of “persistently failing,” but state officials are still finalizing the criteria.)

Under the law, the city has just one year to improve its “persistently failing” schools and two years to improve “failing” schools, whose academic performance have not lagged for as long. Schools that don’t demonstrate improvement over that span will be eligible to be put under the control of a receiver — a nonprofit, another school district, or individual chosen by the chancellor.

The city has already had plans for 10 of its “persistently failing” schools. Seven were included in the city’s Renewal program and are developing improvement plans for next year. Three others will close for good in June, having years ago begun the process of phasing out.

That left P.S. 64 and M.S. 126. The city promised in May to increase the schools’ budgets and to provide them with new access to substance-abuse counselors, but had not yet promised them additional resources like those offered to schools in its high-profile Renewal program.

The two schools were not included in the Renewal program for different reasons, officials said. P.S. 64 is phasing out, with the 2015-16 school year set to be its last. Meanwhile, M.S. 126’s proficiency rate on last year’s state English tests was just good enough, at 9.6 percent, to stay out of the bottom quartile of all city schools, one of the city’s criteria for inclusion.

With P.S. 64 set to shrink to just a fifth grade as it prepares to close, a department spokeswoman said its new money will be shared with P.S. 294 and P.S. 311, the two schools that have opened up in the Bronx building to replace it. Local advocates said they were relieved that those schools would benefit, although it’s not clear how the state will measure academic progress or if a receiver could take over the new elementary schools, both of which are finishing up their second years.

“There’s a lot of confidence in the new leadership in the new schools and we want to see them supported,” said Emma Hulse, a community organizer for the New Settlement Parent Action Committee, a Bronx group.

Calls and emails to P.S. 64 and M.S. 126 and their principals were not immediately returned.

The receivership law received new attention on Monday, two weeks before the State Education Department and the Board of Regents are set to finalize the details of new law. The city teachers union and advocacy groups urged officials to set reasonable performance targets for the schools and, as the United Federation of Teachers put it, enforce the receivership portion only as a “last resort.”

“The Regents, in enacting regulations for these struggling schools, need to set them up for success and not failure,” said Billy Easton of the Alliance for Quality Education, a coalition allied with the teachers union.

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