George Washington

New principal for George Washington High School after year of transition

The recommendations call for George Washington High to get $6.7 million for upgrades or renovations.

As George Washington High School embarks on a new effort aimed at bridging academic and cultural gaps in the school, students and staff now know who will lead the school when current interim principal Jose Martinez retires at the end of next school year: Scott Lessard, currently an assistant principal at the school.

Lessard will be the school’s third principal in four years. Former principal Micheal Johnson left the school last summer for a central office job after a proposal to dramatically open up the school’s International Baccalaureate program caused an uproar among many IB parents. He was replaced by principal Martinez. Initially slated to stay for one year, Martinez announced in January that he will stay at the school until the end of the 2015-16 school year.

Lessard came to George Washington last summer after 13 years at Denver’s Thomas Jefferson High School. Next school year, Lessard will be a “succession principal,” which means he will be working with Martinez to prepare for the 2016-17 school year for a full school year before he officially becomes principal.

Scott Lessard will be the principal at George Washington High School starting in the 2016-17 school year.
PHOTO: via DPS
Scott Lessard will be the principal at George Washington High School starting in the 2016-17 school year.

Chalkbeat spoke with Lessard about his vision for George Washington, retaining teachers, and how the school is working to improve academics for all students at the school.

Why were you interested in being George Washington’s principal?
From the day I got to GW, I realized what a special place it was and how many assets it had. As you know, it’s gone through some turmoil that I thought that shouldn’t be repeated. I think I have a clear vision for success and I want to make sure we have the consistency here to make those things happen.

What is that vision?

GW has an International Baccalaureate program second to none in the state of Colorado. So part of my vision is to make sure that it maintains its status and its academic excellence so students around the city have that kind of environment to come to to study. At the same time, we have to spend a lot of time and energy making sure students who aren’t in IB — which is two thirds of students — have an academically rigorous and engaging program so they can graduate college-ready.

What are you doing to close opportunity gaps at the school?
Specifically thinking about IB, we have broadened the pipeline for entrance. There’s no more screening at freshman year. If we’re talking about the school at large, we did a lot of work to identify the different challenges that our entire population has regarding academic success and identifying things we can do.

One is streamlining curricula to make sure students in 9th and 11th are getting coursework they need so they can take college level-classes senior year without fear of not succeeding.

At a presentation describing plans for the school next year, students talked about a cultural divide in the school. How are you going to address this?
There was a big division between IB and non-IB students. We have dedicated a ton of resources going into next year to make sure we can run a full-fledged, integrated advisory for ninth graders. Students will work on a service learning project, and kids will be grouped together to build relationships over the whole year.

There will also be a group of upperclassmen called the PIT group, or Patriots In Training, who will be leading those ninth graders.

There are more high schools on the way in the area: For instance, DSST has announced plans to expand. How are you thinking about recruiting and retaining students?
You have to have a great product, and word of mouth is everything. While I do engage with our community at large in different areas — I just met with the president of our local Homeowner’s Association to give them a sense of what’s going on at GW — the key to success and growing enrollment is making sure we have a great product. That great product is students graduating college ready and scores reflecting that.

The other part is, we want to make sure students are safe. That means kids are doing what they’re supposed to be doing.

Leadership transitions often come along with significant staff turnover. Can you talk about how you’re approaching teacher retention?
Last year we had to replace 17 teachers, and many of those were teachers who decided to leave GW and go to a different school in the community. That means they thought it was better to go somewhere else than to stay here. This year we have only one doing that, and they live closer to the school they’re going to. That says volumes to the optimism of staff in the ability of this community of educators to provide an outstanding education.

How are you working with the community and parents? 
Both Jose and I know it’s critical to keep people who’ve demonstrated such passion for GW engaged in the work we’re doing. Last spring was tumultuous but I think it brought out the best of what GW can be because there’s a lot of people wanting to make things better.

Is there a possibility that GW would eventually offer credits for individual B courses instead of having only an all-in diploma program?
While I never say never, we do not have any thought of offering IB coursework to non-diploma program kids. We are a diploma program. It’s been critical for our success over last 30 years that that be part of goal for every kid who’s participating. I think to dilute it by doing certificates within the program would compromise the IB program’s long-term success.

We also have a great Advanced Placement program, and a lot of really smart kids who don’t necessarily want the IB Diploma. They’re very happy in AP program. There’s a different kind of structure than the certificate would have, but the academic rigor should be the same.<

How does the introduction of an IB program at Northfield affect George Washington?
We might lose kids to Northfield IB. That’s the nature of the game – when you build more schools, enrollment will change. But I’m not overly concerned that Northfield will draw out the heart and soul of our IB. I think that Northfield will offer its program. For kids in grades 5 or 6, there will be an opportunity to watch both grow and develop before they make a decision. I think ultimately we can offer something that a lot of people are very interested in.

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