moving on up

At critical moment, Merryl Tisch takes helm of state school board

The new Board of Regents chancellor, Merryl Tisch. (GothamSchools)
PHOTO: Chalkbeat Colorado
Merryl Tisch, sitting next to teachers union vice president Carmen Alvarez at the Manhattan Assembly hearing on mayoral control. (##

Merryl Tisch, a former first-grade teacher and member of one of the city’s most philanthropic families, will head the committee that oversees the state public schools, the Board of Regents, state officials just announced.

The other Regents elected Tisch to the title today at a critical moment for state education efforts. The Education Department in Albany is launching an internal restructuring, and the Regents are searching for a new commissioner to run the department.

Commissioner Richard Mills, who had served 14 years in the job, presiding over an ambitious raising of graduation standards, announced his plans to retire last year. The current Regents chancellor, Robert Bennett, of Buffalo, said he would step down from the position 10 days ago. Tisch has been vice chancellor of the board since 2007 and served on the board since 1996. Her term as chancellor begins April 1.

Though Tisch has been a strong supporter of Mayor Bloomberg, she has also occasionally criticized him and his schools chancellor, Joel Klein. She told the Times last year that she disagreed with Klein’s request for looser regulations on state funds. “Nobody appointed him czar,” she said. She also testified to a committee that mayoral control of the schools, which Bloomberg strongly supports, should be curtailed. I reported her testimony, which was originally secret, at the New York Sun

Yet Tisch’s plans for the state’s public schools, which she laid out in a long statement accepting the new position, sound many similar notes to the Bloomberg administration’s work in New York City. It also echoes the Obama administration’s plans for education.

She said she plans to expand the state data system so that it tracks students’ academic progress from pre-kindergarten to college. She said the Regents and the state education department they oversee will “embrace innovation with a data-driven approach.” She also voiced support for alternative paths to the teaching profession and said the state should be searching for more “excellent teachers” to work with at-risk students, including black and Latino students, those with disabilities, and students still learning English.

Tisch didn’t immediately return a phone call to her New York residence. You can read an official biography of her here, which includes a summary of Tisch’s many board memberships and her teaching experience — she taught first-grade at an elite private Jewish day school, Ramaz, and holds an Ed.D from Teachers College at Columbia.

Also today, the state Education Department announced that the counsel to the Regents and the department, Kathy Ahearn, is stepping down to pursue a new job in the private sector.

Here’s the full outline of Tisch’s plans for the state’s public schools:

Going forward, standards, accountability and innovation will be the
watchwords of this Board and the State Education Department.

As Chancellor, I will insist that we continue to raise standards for
all of our children and hold every school district accountable for their
results, while providing the support necessary to get that done.

We will reform and expand our data system to make it easier to use,
faster, and more complete, extending from pre-kindergarten through

We will embrace innovation with a data-driven approach that seeks to
constantly identify and advance policies and best practices to raise
test scores, raise graduation rates, and finally close the achievement

We will extend the call for greater accountability and higher standards
to our two year colleges so that all of our graduates are prepared to
succeed in the workplace or to achieve at a four year college or

We will continue to find new ways to recruit the best and brightest
into teaching and keep them there with an openness to alternate routes
to certification and experiments to reward excellence.

We will find new ways to increase the number of excellent teachers
working in schools with students who need extra help, including black
and Latino students, English Language Learners and students with

And we will move forward with the effort begun by Chancellor Bennett,
the Board of Regents, and Commissioner Mills to redesign the State
Education Department so that we can better support local innovation in
our highest performing districts and engage more deeply with districts
that are struggling and in need of additional support.

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