IPS board overturns 2014 decisions, will partner with Phalen charter school

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Earl Martin Phalen and Marlon Llewellyn of Phalen Leadership Academy present their idea to IPS school board members to open an autonomous school within the district.

Three new Indianapolis Public School Board members helped junk two big decisions their predecessors backed in the twilight of their terms late last year.

First, the board approved the state’s first-ever “innovation network school,” an autonomous IPS school under the district’s umbrella, to be run in partnership with the Phalen Leadership Academy charter school. The move was authorized by a law created by the legislature last year called House Bill 1321.

Phalen’s plan is to turn around a low-performing district school while it manages the building under IPS control. The school concept was crafted by two Mind Trust innovation school fellows, Earl Phalen and Marlon Llewellyn, who won a $100,000 fellowship from the education advocacy group last year to develop and pitch the idea.

Second, the board reinstated a contract with Teach Plus to support a teacher leader program, reversing another decision made by former board members.

“The whole concept of innovation is new ideas,” board president Diane Arnold said. “Let’s think outside the box and try some innovative ideas.”

Gayle Cosby, the lone returning board member who expressed concerns with both proposals last year, voted no again both times. She was the only no vote. The Phalen partnership passed 6-1. Caitlin Hannon abstained from voting on the contract with Teach Plus because she leads the organization’s Indianapolis branch. That vote was 5-1.

The next step for the Phalen school, which is slated to open in the fall, is to decide which struggling school building will be overhauled. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said there would be community input first. The district has to complete a contract with Phalen to decide funding levels, services and test score expectations.

The school plans to improve student performance by using strategies it employs in the Phalen charter school, including using “blended learning” — teaching students using traditional classroom instruction and through online lessons — and by extending both the school year and the school day.

The proposal was cheered by IPS parents affiliated the advocacy group Stand for Children, which pushes for change in district schools and in state education policy. Eugenia Murry, a parent of a School 93 student, told board members school choice leads to better outcomes for kids.

“All children have a right to benefit from high quality education,” she said. “Failure should no longer be an option. The need for this turnaround model has never been greater.”

But Cosby urged board members be more cautious about partnering with groups that haven’t yet proven successful. Phalen Leadership Academy’s Indianapolis charter school, which opened in 2013, has not yet earned an A to F grade under the state’s accountability system.

“The goal of this initiative is to improve our state letter grades,” Cosby said. “I just feel like this is a gamble we really shouldn’t take at this time. I can’t gamble with our kids’ education.”

Board member Sam Odle countered, saying trying new ideas is the intent of the law.

“What we’re doing doesn’t work, so we’re going to try something else,” board member Sam Odle said. “(We’re) not letting the status quo hold us down.”

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