For Manual High School parents, a first meeting with new school leader

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
A Manual student skateboards across an entrance in December. Students are aware of how far behind they are, but constant 'nagging' has left many students dis-interested in learning.

Worries and confusion, but not anger, dominated the first meeting between Manual High School parents and the school’s new leader, former Hill Middle School principal Don Roy.

Roy joined the school two weeks ago, a day after district officials dismissed the school’s previous principal Brian Dale. Dale had led the school for two and half years, during which the Manual’s once promising academic performance plummeted. Manual has been at the center of Denver’s school improvement efforts for a decade. Its struggles with low performance and leadership turnover were detailed in a four-part series from Chalkbeat Colorado.

The school’s new district supervisor, Greta Martinez, who oversees Denver’s high schools, introduced  Roy, saying his hiring is “an opportunity to increase this school year and next school year.”

She also tried to head off the touchiest question of the evening — why the change?

“As for the biggest question we’ve heard, why make this change mid-year?” said Martinez, who oversees the district’s high schools, including Manual. “All of our other schools are on an upward trend. [Here], things are not improving. Things are remaining persistently low.”

Roy addressed a crowd that included roughly thirty parents and alumni as well as two school board members, Happy Haynes and Landri Taylor. The new principal encouraged them to “hold us accountable but hold your kids accountable.”

On increasing Manual’s performance, he said “there are few things getting in the way, including school climate and attitudes towards learning and to being in class.”

Roy encouraged parents to get involved. “It has to be a team effort,” he said.

But the leadership transition didn’t sit well with everyone.

“Trust hasn’t been expressed to parents,” said Pauletta Anderson, whose daughter attends the school. Denver Public Schools (DPS) needs to “trust in the parents.”

Anderson also objected to “strangers coming in trying to tell the community what to do.”

Others pushed for a focus on stability at the school.

“We need to have consistency for these kids because that’s what makes a change,” said a former Manual student, who attended the school in the year before it closed.

“Let’s make stability the biggest thing,” said Rick Jimmerson, parent of a Manual student. ‘

For him, Manual’s struggle went deeper than test scores; instead, he argued that the school’s challenges reflect the changing face of the neighborhood. “When I was a student, we went to church with our teachers,” he said. “But this is a changing neighborhood. If we were so smart, we wouldn’t be doing things like this. You’re not doing [anything] by smart people bouncing around.”

He said part of the solution lay in more discipline with students.

“It’s sad for kids to make the laws on us,” Jimmerson said. “It’s a shame to see all this education going up.”

The biggest worry on everyone’s mind actually had little to do with the transition — student safety and drug use were at the forefront of many parents’ minds.

One mother spoke through a translator about smelling marijuana in the halls when she picked her student up.

“She’s really concerned about after school programs,” translated Veronica Figoli, DPS’ director of community engagement. “She’s like to see a closer eye on students after school.”

Several parents asked Roy what he would be doing about students smoking in the park and strangers hanging out near the school.

“We have concerns about drugs that are here and people who hang around the perimeter of the school,” said one Manual mother.

According to Roy, the school was working on it but he encouraged parents to call the school if they saw anything suspicious. Vernon Jones, Manual’s longtime assistant principal, said they were in talks with city officials to develop a plan for patrolling the park.

The meeting was also the first opportunity many parents had had to ask some burning but basic questions about how the school was run.

“What is the bell time?” asked one father, who said his daughter told him she didn’t have to be there until after eight in the morning.

“The bell time is eight a.m.” confirmed Roy. “We have a lot of students walking in after eight. Now they’re getting caught up in the tardy net.”

Another parent, speaking in Spanish, worried that she didn’t hear about her daughter ditching class until late in the day.

“She drops off her daughter but she doesn’t know if she stays,” Figoli translated.

Roy emphasized that communicating more with parents was one of his top priorities.

“Our goal is to over communicate until you’re sick of hearing from us,” Roy said, getting chuckles from parents. He suggested calling parents earlier in the day and even twice a day. Roy also plans to host open office hours weekly for parents to come and raise concerns.

Jimmerson thanked Roy and the two board members for having the guts to listen to parent concerns.

“To take an open forum takes a lot of stuff,” he said. “Glad to have you back in the conversation the way you are.”

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