introduction

At a critical moment, a new special education chief takes over

The new head of special education at the Department of Education thinks long-planned reforms to the way city schools educate students with special needs are likely to be “very rocky” when they roll out this fall.

But Corinne Rello-Anselmi believes that not making radical changes would be far more damaging.

That’s what she told a group of parents who sit on a special education advisory board Thursday evening. It was Rello-Anselmi’s formal introduction to the board, the Citywide Council on Special Education, since taking over this month as deputy chancellor of special education and English language learning.

She replaces Laura Rodriguez, the first person to hold that position. Under Rodriguez’s leadership, the city launched sweeping reforms designed to integrate students with disabilities into classroom settings alongside their peers.

Those reforms have been underway in some schools for two years. But for most schools, the changes are taking effect only this year, bringing a new level of scrutiny to the special education deputy position.

The parent advisory board largely supports the principle that is guiding the reforms: that more inclusive classroom settings are better for students with disabilities. Research has shown students with special needs who spend less time in so-called “self-contained” special education classrooms have higher attendance, higher test scores, fewer behavioral problems, and higher graduation rates.

But board members have also joined a growing chorus of parents and advocates who say they are concerned about whether schools are prepared to handle the changes, which will bring students with disabilities to neighborhood schools that have served few students with special needs in the past. The parents and advocates fear that schools that have served few students with special needs will not be equipped to provide the appropriate services to meet academic goals stated on new students’ individualized education plans.

Jaye Bea Smalley, CCSE’s co-president, said at Thursday’s meeting that she didn’t believe the reforms were misguided or that they were being rolled out too quickly. She said her fear lay in something more fundamental.

“It’s just that I don’t think our school system really will allow for it to happen,” Smalley said.

During the meeting, Rello-Anselmi said she “personally” believed that the rollout would be “very rocky.” But she said reducing city schools’ reliance on segregated special education settings where student achievement tends to be very low would be worth the disruption.

In an interview after the meeting, Rello-Anselmi called her new job the culmination of “my life’s work” and indicated that she did not think she had been selected simply to carry out an existing initiative. Rello-Anselmi has spent more than three decades working in special education, first as a teacher and principal at P.S. 108, where she said the school eventually integrated eight self-contained classrooms.

“The journey of those years really was about setting a fully inclusive environment for all kids,” she said.

Most recently, Rello-Anselmi oversaw a branch of the Department of Education’s school support structure. The branch included dozens of schools organized under a cluster of 12 networks, three of which participated in the pilot of the special education reforms. Working with those schools gave Rello-Anselmi a firsthand look at how schools adopted to the mandate to serve higher-need students, she said.

“I saw a lot of how schools reform their practices to be more inclusive and it worked because it was supported by the network,” Rello-Anselmi said.

While Rello-Anselmi said she intended to carry out the reforms that began before her, she already had ideas about how to change her office’s approach to providing information to the public. So far, the department has provided only scant information about how the reforms have played out at the pilot schools, and at a City Council hearing last month, Rodriguez acknowledged that her office was not keeping track of certain data points that advocates were asking for.

Rello-Anselmi said she could not explain why those data points had not been part of the department’s assessment of the reforms. But she said she would make sure that they will be in the future.

“I can’t answer to that because I wasn’t part of it,” she said. “But the DOE always looks at how we are doing, so there will be a greater emphasis on looking at what is happening in terms of meeting the needs of students and how they’re progressing socially and academically. By that I mean we’ll be looking at things like suspension data, we’ll be looking at achievement data.”

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