come together

Charter-district school tours kick off with lessons in creativity

Visiting educators observe students at Bronx Charter School for Excellence. (Team B Productions)

The first round of school tours hosted by a group promoting collaboration between the city’s charter and district schools kicked off last week when more than 20 educators visited a high-performing Bronx charter school.

Tuesday’s tour at the Bronx Charter School for Excellence was organized by NYC Collaborates, an initiative that stems from a compact between the Department of Education and more than 85 charter schools to set aside their differences and work together.

“The impetus for the tours … is that there are just not many formal mechanisms for sharing,” said Cara Volpe, who manages NYC Collaborates, part of a national initiative funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. New York became one of nine cities to join the initiative when then-Chancellor Joel Klein signed the foundation’s collaboration compact in 2010.

This month, the group organized four school tours, all in the Bronx. Each has a different theme: Educators will visit KIPP Academy for lessons in character education and the Eagle Academy to learn how new schools can create traditions to build school culture, for example.

Last Tuesday’s tour focused on creativity in the classroom. Sitting in front of blue plastic desks with notepads and pens in their hands, principals, teachers, and other school officials raised their hands to ask questions as they listened to BCSE’s principal, Charlene Reid share tips on how to foster creativity while also achieving strong test scores.

“High-performing charter schools are not synonymous with creativity,” lamented Reid, who said BCSE switched to project-based learning after April’s state tests. “Children need skills but also need to think flexibly.”

The Bronx charter school is thriving after a rocky start. After opening in 2004, the school initially struggled with low test scores and unsteady leadership. After the board brought in Reid in 2007, performance began inching up, and last year, 96 percent of students passed the state’s math exam and 91 percent passed the English test.

One charter school principal, Curtis Palmore, said he specifically signed up to visit Bronx Charter because of the school’s strong reputation. Until last spring, Palmore led a charter school that performed so poorly that it was selected to be taken over by another charter operator, and now he is set to lead a different charter school, Explore Exceed, starting next month.

After the conversation with Reid, teachers on the study tour spread out to observe elementary-grade classes.

“I wanted to come to this [school] because I’m curious about adding creativity to my lessons. I feel like it’s a big problem in charter schools. Often times the achievement gap is prioritized over lessons being creative,” said a first-grade teacher who wanted to be anonymous to avoid identifying her East Harlem charter school.

Soft instrumental music played in the classroom as the teacher crouched down to speak with kindergarteners who were busy coloring. “I want to make my lessons interesting for the kids,” she said.

Reid said she volunteered to host a study tour out of a desire to see charter-district school relations become less polarized.

“The big wedge that drives schools apart is the lack of communication. We are educating the same students,” she said. “I think if we can create more formal ways to communicate and actually work together and collaborate with each other, our co-existence would be more harmonious.”

Most of the educators who signed up for the Bronx tours are from charter schools, despite Volpe’s efforts to raise interest in district schools as well.

“We made sure to get this in the hands of the district schools, which is challenging for sheer communications reasons,” Volpe explained. “We went painstakingly through public information. We pulled every Bronx principal’s email that we could find and then sent them an email and a hard copy” of an announcement.

The handful of district teachers who visited BCSE included Chana Comer, from Baychester Middle School.

“I came here to see what they were incorporating and what their definition of creativity was,” said the sixth-grade science teacher, who added that her principal invited all the teachers at her school to join the school.

Comer said she was impressed with the advice she received at Bronx Charter and emphasized that she doesn’t believe students’ success depends on the type of school they attend.

“I think it really boils down to the administration,” she said. “I think a school is only as good as the administration, whether it’s a public school or a charter school.”

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