young democrats

Obama is an inspiration to a 14-year-old watching from Harlem

Students from 34 city public schools and and an influx of tearful well-wishers — including some members of the New York Guard, a family that traveled to Harlem from New Jersey, and city charter school lobbyists — filled the enormous Harlem Armory this morning to watch Barack Obama’s inauguration on three giant television screens.

Just before noon, some children squirmed while students and teachers spoke at a dais. Others sank into their seats and nodded quietly to the iPod music plugged into their ears. But when the CNN announcer declared that, although he had not yet been sworn in, Obama was now officially president, even the too-cool-for-school students stood up to scream. When he took the oath of office, children jumped up and down, grinning, and waved American flags. Adults sitting on the sidelines wiped tears from their eyes.

Douglas Noble, an eighth-grader, said Obama caused him to reevaluate his dreams.
Douglas Noble, an eighth-grader at KAPPA II, said Obama caused him to reevaluate his dreams.

One former sloucher, Douglas Noble, a 14-year-old eighth-grader at KAPPA II, a middle school in East Harlem, had drawn a picture of Obama on a posterboard and written the words “YES, WE, CAN” at the top. “He showed every black person that, even though you’re at the bottom, you can still make it to the top,” Noble said.

He said Obama’s rise changed his life goals. He had wanted to be a basketball player, but now he’s set his sights on engineering. “Everybody wants to be a basketball player, but I want to be something that’s harder,” he said. “A basketball player, all you have to know how to do is dribble and shoot. An engineer, you have to know a lot more.”

Noble, who wore a hooded sweatshirt and a Yankees t-shirt, sat down for most of the day’s events, even as other students danced around excitedly, but he pushed his chair back and stood when Obama took the oath of office. “I’m showing my respect to Obama for making it,” he said.

The Democracy Prep charter school, a three-year-old middle school in Harlem which will extend into high school next year, organized the event, coming up with the idea of a party in their own neighborhood after the school’s plans to travel to Washington, D.C., for the inauguration didn’t transpire. A group of about 25 students sat on an inauguration committee that planned the alternative event. (A lone student supported John McCain.)

Their Harlem Armory party proved so popular that the entire floor of the Armory today was packed with round tables filled with children. Seats in upstairs bleachers were also filled. Students found blank poster boards and markers at their tables, and they filled the posters with pictures congratulating Obama.

Democracy Prep founder Seth Andrew made the event political, too. Next to the markers and posterboard were postcards pre-addressed to President Barack Obama at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The postcards said:

Dear President Obama:

I want to congratulate you on this historic day and ask you to keep your promise to support more school choice and parent voice in education.

The postcards also included room for students to write their ideas for how to improve America’s schools, and a request: “Please write back if you can.”

The executive director of the New York City Center for Charter School Excellence, James Merriman, sat in the crowd of students alongside Michael Thomas Duffy, who runs the Department of Education’s charter school office. Merriman addressed the crowd, and a press group that works with his organization, Knickerbocker SKD, handled the gaggles of press who converged in Harlem for the event.

“Out of all the choices, I wanted to come to Harlem,” said Cathy Salley, a mother from New Jersey who brought her children to the Armory for the day. “It’s the environment, it’s the camaraderie. This is an experience they’ll never forget.”

There were some moments when the entire room came alive, like when Obama took his oath and students stood up with him and put their hands over their hearts, and when Aretha Franklin sang. One girl, a student at East New York Prep Charter School in Brooklyn, registered a note of disappointment when she realized Obama himself would not be in Harlem. “I was excited because I thought I was going to see Obama,” she said.

The final time the room exploded came via a song the event organizers put on the loudspeaker, after fading out the sound of CNN. It was Natasha Bedingfield singing “Unwritten.”

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