getting along

School board vote commits Shelby County’s district and charter sectors to trying to collaborate

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Parent Juanita Patton was one of several charter school supporters to testify in favor of a collaboration agreement between Shelby County Schools and Memphis's charter sector during a board meeting Tuesday. The Shelby County Schools board approved the agreement.

The Shelby County school board’s latest vote on Tuesday elicited an unusual reaction: cheers from charter school advocates.

Just a month after pushing back against a state initiative to turn over low-performing schools to charter operators, the board voted unanimously to adopt an agreement between the schools it runs and the charter sector.

The agreement — which Superintendent Dorsey Hopson first requested two years ago — commits both sectors to trying to work through some sticky issues, such as how school space gets used and how schools get funding to serve students with disabilities. It also signals that both district-run and charter schools will get numerical grades through a new rating system that the board is developing.

But in contrast to a draft that the board considered last year, it does not actually resolve those issues, instead delegating the difficult work of coming to terms to a committee that now must be convened. And the agreement includes no timeline for when that, or any subsequent conversations, has to happen.

Still, charter advocates found lots to cheer in the deal, known as a charter-district compact. As in the nation’s 16 other major school districts with charter compacts, Memphis has been roiled by conflict over the role of charter schools. Having a compact in place signals that districts have accepted charter schools as part of their educational landscape, even if some specifics remain contentious.

That’s something of a shift in Memphis, where the board recently voted — symbolically, but powerfully — to call for a moratorium on expansion by the state-run Achievement School District, which assigns struggling local schools to charter operators. Instead, members have lobbied for increased support for the district’s own turnaround initiative, which does not include charter schools.

Before the vote, dozens of charter supporters lined up to share their positive experiences and pleas for Shelby County Schools to establish a working relationship with the publicly funded but privately managed schools.

Juanita Patton, a parent of two charter school students, encouraged the board to pass the compact and put an end to past conflicts between the school district and charter operators.

“It has often felt like we have been working against one another and not with one another,” said Patton. “We need to build positive and beneficial relationships between public and charter schools.”

Luther Mercer, Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center, said before the meeting that a charter compact would signal the start of a new, more collaborative era in Memphis.

“It speaks to the transformation that’s taking place here on the ground where SCS and charters in this community are helping to lead the way,” he said.

Having a compact in place hardly guarantees an end to tensions. Even with a compact in place, Nashville school board members regularly debate the costs and benefits of charter schools, and the board frequently is split about whether or how quickly to expand the city’s charter sector. Similarly, a compact signed in 2010 in New York City did not prevent conflict around charter schools from taking center stage when a new mayor who was less favorable to them took over.

For now, the district and charter sector must identify members for the ongoing collaboration committee. And Stephanie Love, who has been a vocal critic of charter schools run by the state’s turnaround district, emphasized that the compact is a framework waiting to undergo further revisions.

She also said there are good reasons for work on charter-district collaboration to proceed slowly. “It may have taken a long time,” Love said about the compact, “but we wanted to make sure we were being transparent with everybody.”

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