who's the boss?

The state names 62 NYC schools that must quickly improve or face takeover

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin-Office of the Governor/Flickr
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a press conference in 2014.

The state named 62 low-performing New York City schools Thursday that the chancellor will be forced to hand over to an outside manager if she cannot swiftly revamp them.

The possible takeovers stem from a law proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, which lays bare a debate between him and Mayor Bill de Blasio about the best way to prop up floundering schools. While de Blasio launched an expensive union-backed program last year that infuses struggling schools with extra resources and support, Cuomo’s plan would empower outside groups to take control of the schools, sidestep union rules, and potentially convert them into charter schools. The law, which passed in April, is a scaled back version of Cuomo’s plan.

Fifty of the schools the law targets are part of de Blasio’s turnaround program. However, the law expands Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s power to make certain changes at the schools, such as requiring all their teachers to reapply for their jobs. The city already forced the entire staffs at two troubled schools to re-interview for their jobs this year, and education department officials said Thursday that they would consider making the principals and teachers at the other state-identified struggling schools do the same.

[See the full list of schools facing takeover here.]

If those schools do not make quick gains under Fariña’s guidance, then she will have to cede control to an outside “receiver,” which could be a school-improvement expert or a nonprofit.

“In these schools, whole generations of students have been left behind,” said recently hired State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, who is responsible for enacting the receivership law. “Superintendents have an obligation to act on conditions that have persisted for too long in these schools.”

Under pressure from the state teacher’s union, lawmakers modified Cuomo’s plan before approving it. The law gives districts at least a year to try to improve their schools before receivers are called in, lets them choose those receivers, and makes the receivers negotiate with the teachers unions before carrying out certain actions. It also comes with $75 million to fund improvements at the schools.

Still, the city and state unions have denounced the plan, saying that struggling schools need more resources and fewer harsh interventions. And de Blasio called it a “formula for disaster” earlier this year, saying the state should give the city’s “Renewal” turnaround program time to work.

In fact, New York may be better positioned under the new law than some cities. Many of the powers that receivers have under the law — such as the ability to bring new health and social services into the schools or extend their hours — are elements of the Renewal program. And the city could potentially expand the deal it already hashed out with the principals and teachers unions, which required the staffs at the two schools to re-interview for their jobs before joint city-union hiring committees.

“The schools designated are all schools that the DOE has already invested tremendous resources in and we are closely tracking all indicators of progress,” said city education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye. “There are no surprises.”

The 62 schools all rank among the bottom five percent in the state. Fifty-five of those schools have been in that category since 2012, and now have two years to hit improvement targets before a receiver would take control. The other seven have been bottom-ranked since 2006 and only have one year to post major gains. (One of those seven, P.S. 64 in the Bronx, is in the process of closing.)

The law gives Fariña the same authority as a receiver, which includes overhauling the schools’ curriculums, adjusting their budgets, and replacing their principals. Unlike other school chiefs across the state, Fariña already has the ability to do much of that because the mayor controls the city’s schools, not a school board.

If she chooses to make staffers reapply for their jobs, the law says she must form hiring panels that include her, two people she appoints, and two union appointees. The law also stipulates that no teachers who have been rated “ineffective” twice on their evaluations may be rehired, and at least half of a school’s senior teachers must be retained.

The city must create intervention plans for each of the schools that list goals around attendance, graduation rates, test scores, and discipline. The law gives the state education department until September to tell districts what those goals should be. If the schools fail to hit those targets, then Fariña must choose a receiver to oversee them.

The state has set aside $75 million for the 144 schools across New York that are affected by the new receivership law, but it was unclear Thursday how much of that would be directed to New York City. The city has budgeted more than $538 million over the next three years for its turnaround program. City officials said the 12 schools that could face receivership but are not in the Renewal program have still received extra funding and help from the city.

On Thursday, the head of a pro-charter school group said de Blasio should make the teachers at all 62 schools re-interview for their jobs. Otherwise, “he will be guilty of refusing to take easy steps to end this city’s failing schools crisis,” said Families for Excellent Schools CEO Jeremiah Kittredge.

The city teachers union chief said de Blasio’s program is best suited to revive the city’s struggling schools, not an outside overseer.

“Receivers have no magic wand,” said United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew. “We have seen that over and over again, in New York State and across the country.”

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