Board members balk at Ferebee's principal selection process

IPS board member Gayle Cosby questioned whether Superintendent Lewis Ferebee's principal selection process included enough community input. (Scott Elliott)

The hiring of two IPS principals was shelved Tuesday as board members questioned whether Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s new approach to selecting school leaders did enough to involve parents.

“My hope … is this would open the door to other schools and parents who have a concern,” said board member Gayle Cosby, one of the objectors, after a long discussion during which she pitched her own ideas to involve community members in the principal selection process.

But other board members said selecting principals is primarily Ferebee’s job.

“I think we all want more parental involvement and community involvement,” board member Sam Odle said. “I think we ought to be data driven. I’d like to see the metrics they’re using to judge themselves to be successful. We’ve got to make sure we hold the superintendent accountable in selecting the right leadership.”

As Ferebee has been working on a new step-by-step process for choosing school leaders,  his major focus has been on exactly what board members were asking for: getting more input from people connected to the schools. He proposed creating feedback panels, which have been put in place already for some searches, composed of a teacher, three other staff and two optional “community stakeholders” to vet principal candidates, with the superintendent having control over the final selection.

“What you see in the policy represents a philosophy of being more inclusive and being more (engaged),” Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said. “Is it perfect? Probably not. I believe we have an opportunity to get this right and we will get it right. We’ll see support we haven’t seen before. We’ll see opportunities we haven’t seen before.”

But the board wanted to go further, voting to mandate that at least one parent be part of each selection panel. They also delayed hiring two proposed principal candidates for Northwest and George Washington high schools so at least one parent at each school would be part of the screening process.

Board member Michael Brown told board members, earning applause from the public audience, that he refused to support the policy if it was not written in stone that parents would be included. He eventually voted for it after the board amended the policy.

“If we don’t get parental buy in, I think we’re saying one thing and doing another,” Brown said, adding later that “for years and years … voices have remained silent because they felt it was falling on deaf ears until we hired a superintended that opened up the door.”

Parents’ feeling about the school matter just as much as test scores and A to F grades, he said.

“You can put a letter grade on any school but how the parents feel their students are doing should have some (input) on how their schools are doing,” Brown said.

Ferebee acknowledged IPS could be better at including parents in the school leadership selection process.

“I think we have some growth opportunities in terms of engaging parents,” Ferebee said. “I think parents should be at the table.”

After the debate, Cosby proposing a resolution specific to George Washington, requiring that its Community Advisory Council be represented in future school leadership decisions at the school. There was no vote on that idea.

Ferebee did not specify a timeline for naming leaders at George Washington and Northwest.

“These are schools that have been struggling,” he said. “It may be that the same individuals will surface. We’re going to do our due diligence. We’d rather take our time and get it right.”

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