principaled advocacy

StudentsFirstNY adds an educator in time for Cuomo task force

Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky taught a class at Bronx Academy of Letters in May. The school's principal has joined an education advocacy group, StudentsFirstNY.

When New York City faced a budget shortfall three years ago, Bronx Academy of Letters principal Anna Hall faced a crisis at her school.

Because state law requires that layoffs start with the newest teachers, threatened cuts meant more than 50 percent of Hall’s strongest teachers would be cut loose: They had logged relatively few years in the school system.

“That was the most harrowing, horrible experience,” Hall said.

The layoffs never materialized. But the scare cemented Hall’s belief that teachers shouldn’t be protected from layoffs based solely on their experience.

The experience was one of many that Hall said drew her to her new job: as director of education for StudentsFirstNY, the state’s spinoff of Michelle Rhee’s national education advocacy group.

StudentsFirstNY has kept a low profile in the three months since its splashy entrance onto the education advocacy scene. It spent about $10,000 on a mailer to support Hakeem Jeffries in his successful Congressional primary campaign against Charles Barron last month, according to federal election filings. But the group has steered clear of some more heated education debates, including the city’s now-failed effort to close two dozen schools through a federal turnaround model, and it has not yet fully articulated its policy agenda for the next year.

That seems poised to change today. Hall is set to share her personal hopes for policy change at a public meeting in the Bronx of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s education reform commission.

The commission, which convened earlier this year, is charged with giving Cuomo a set of recommendations to provide wholesale change to the state’s education system focused on saving money and improving student learning. The commission has been traveling the state to hear testimony from a variety of advocates. At its New York City stop today, those scheduled to speak include Zakiyah Ansari of the Alliance for Quality Education; outgoing UFT Vice President Leo Casey; Evan Stone, of the teacher advocacy group Educators 4 Excellence; and Jemina Bernard, interim director of Teach for America’s New York office, in addition to Hall.

Former colleagues and officials with StudentsFirstNY praised Hall’s background as an educator, but it also doesn’t hurt that her  views on education policies align closely to those of StudentsFirst, the national organization. In her testimony, which will be focused on policies to improve teacher quality, Hall will call for an end to tenure and seniority-based layoffs.

“It’s a radical notion, but I question whether tenure should remain part of our system at all,” according to Hall’s prepared testimony, which was provided in advance to GothamSchools.

She’ll also propose letting districts decide what teachers need to do to get certified before they are allowed to lead a class room. And to help recruit and retain high quality teachers, Hall says that districts should be allowed to forgive new teachers’ college loans and offer bonuses to top performers, two proposals that Mayor Bloomberg floated in his State of the City speech earlier this year.

To push districts and their unions to negotiate these clauses into the teachers contract, Hall said the state legislature should use its budgetary power to withhold state aid, a move that the Cuomo administration has already made to encourage districts to hash out teacher evaluation deals.

Hall, 36, said her interest in entering the world of education policy came from nearly a decade working in the classroom and as a school leader.

“After nine years, I wanted to reset a bit, find a new way to engage in the work that would give me a new perspective on it,” she said.

Hall was the first teacher that founding principal Joan Sullivan hired at Bronx Academy of Letters in 2003. When Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa hired Sullivan to oversee his education agenda in Los Angeles in 2009, Hall replaced her as principal.

In recent years, Bronx Letters has been a regular stop for city Department of Education officials, including Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky when he wanted to teach a class and Chancellor Dennis Walcott on the first day of school last year. Hall said at the time that she was particularly concerned about having the resources to handle her school’s influx of students with special needs.

“She has the opportunity to influence the direction of education in New York and to bring her really substantial skills as a frontline educator to bear in the larger policy debate,” said Sullivan, who said she spoke to Hall before Hall accepted the StudentsFirstNY position. “So it made a lot of sense to me.”

Micah Lasher, who was Mayor Bloomberg’s top Albany lobbyist before leaving to launch StudentsFirstNY as its executive director in April, said hiring someone like Hall to help guide the group’s policy agenda was crucial.

“She’s exactly the kind of person who should be leading this conversation,” Lasher said.

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