civil disagreement

City-state schism over challenge of needy students grows wider

New York City’s process for assigning students to schools still sets some of the schools up to fail, State Education Commission John King charged today.

“I continue to have concerns about enrollment,” King said. “I worry about the over-concentration of high-needs students in particular buildings without adequate supports to ensure success.”

King made the comments to reporters during a break in a meeting of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s state education reform commission, which met this morning in the Bronx.

City officials have acknowledged King’s concerns when petitioning the state for aid, but they have never conceded that high concentrations of needy students could hurt schools. Today, the Department of Education official in charge of enrollment said recent changes to the way some students are assigned to schools, made quietly last summer, were meant to increase choices for families, not respond to King’s concerns or help struggling schools.

King’s concerns reflect longstanding criticism about the Bloomberg administration’s school choice policies. For years, critics have charged that the department overloads some schools with needy students, making it hard for them to show progress or even sustain their past performance. An internal department report completed in 2008 and obtained by GothamSchools last year concluded that a high school’s size and concentration of low-achieving and overage students strongly predicts its graduation rate.

At many schools the city has closed, performance had fallen as populations of English language learners, poor students, low-scoring students, students with disabilities, and overage students increased, often after other nearby schools were shuttered.

But department officials say some schools have improved and even thrived despite having challenging student populations. The deputy chancellor in charge of enrollment, Marc Sternberg, told reporters today that some schools had gotten “outrageously better results” with similar students.

The argument is valid but not sufficient, King said.

“I agree with the city’s perspective that indeed there are schools that have very high concentrations of high-needs kids that are excelling,” he said. “The question is how do we ensure where there are concentrations of [those students], there are adequate supports. If not, how do we think about the enrollment system to make sure that students have access to schools that will provide the support that they need?”

King first expressed the concerns a year ago when awarding the city aid for schools it was closing and reopening. He said he wanted “to ensure that schools receiving students who would otherwise have attended a phased out school are not negatively impacted as a result of their now enrolling an increased number of high-needs students,” a scenario that he noted had played out before in the city.

Today, he said his renewed criticism would not come as a surprise to city officials.

“Chancellor [Merryl] Tisch and I have raised concerns about this repeatedly with the city,” King said. “We think this issue of how you manage enrollment is critical to effectively managing a system of 1,700 schools, and I think ultimately the mayor, the chancellor, and the deputy chancellor, [Shael Polakow-Suransky] came to agree with that view.”

Last summer, the department quietly embarked on a pilot program to distribute students who enroll in the school system during the school year and summer over a wider swath of schools. Those students, known as “over-the-counters,” include immigrants and teens who have been incarcerated. The city gets about 20,000 high-school-aged over-the-counters each year, and last year, about 800 of them went to 54 high schools that had not been slated to accept midyear arrivals, according to a memo the city sent to the State Education Department last month.

The memo was aimed at smoothing the city’s chances of receiving federal School Improvement Grants for 24 struggling schools. King was responsible for distributing the aid, and he had pushed the city to explain how it make sure the school would enroll students whose needs mirrored the district’s as a whole.

In the memo, the city appeared to acknowledge that King’s concerns about student distribution had merit.

“We acknowledge that there is still more work to do,” the memo said. “Over the past 18 months, NYC has been working with the New York State Education Department to address its concerns about situations where our choice-based system may be leading to an over-concentration of students” with high needs.

But Sternberg said today that the recent changes were aimed at offering more choices to over-the-counter students and their families, not distributing high-need students more equitably.

“I think we acknowledge that the state has concerns … and we want to be sensitive to those concerns,” he said. “Our position is we want to provide families as many options as possible.”

He added, “I have a lot of respect for John King. If this is something that John is concerned about we want to be sensitive to that concern.”

King cited the city’s letter when he conditionally approved the federal grants last month, saying that the department had pledged to “aggressively manage” over-the-counter enrollment in the schools.

Today, he said those promises would have to be reassessed now that the city’s school “turnaround” plans, which would have received the funds, have collapsed.

“There are some things that the New York City DOE agreed to do based on their SIG application, but now all of that obviously has to be reviewed, revised, and revisited in light of the arbitrator’s and court’s decision,” King said. “But we’ll continue to have that conversation with the city because we want to be sure that we don’t have those over-concentration of high-needs kids.”

UFT President Michael Mulgrew said today that the changes to the over-the-counter policy were long overdue — and not extensive enough to repair the damage wrought by the city’s school choice policies. “Those are band-aids on this problem,” he said. “The only reason they are even slightly adjusting this is that John King is asking them to.”

King signaled that he had been discussing the issue with not only Sternberg, but with Chancellor Dennis Walcott and Polakow-Suransky as well. “They have been open to discussions with us about how they might tweak enrollment policies to ensure that schools have the right supports in place,” King said.

Those changes are sorely needed, said Robert Hughes, the president of New Visions, a nonprofit that works in or operates dozens of city schools, including some that were eligible for School Improvement Grants.

“I think we do need to figure out a mechanism to ensure that that need is more equitably distributed,” Hughes said. “It’s pretty clear that concentration of student need, and a school’s ability to personalize instruction, has an impact on whether or not a school is successful.”

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