vox popul

Comments of the week: Principals come under fire

This week on GothamSchools, stories of controversial principals generated the most comment activity.

On Tuesday, we reported on the departure of longtime Fort Hamilton High School Principal Jo Ann Chester, who retired this week amidst an investigation into a payroll scheme that underpaid teachers for more than a year. Her exit prompted many people — some posting anonymously who identified themselves as Fort Hamilton teachers — to air their grievances about the school, their former boss and the larger systematic conditions that created:

Jennifer Rivera, a teacher at Fort Hamilton defended Chester and her actions:

The choice that Mrs. Chester made seems to have been one that was in the best interest of a.) her students–they need teachers.  And b.) these teachers–they certainly weren’t “victims” forced to work for some tyrannical cheater; they were teachers who needed experience and had an excellent place to get it.

Additionally, it seems the system with it’s “hiring freeze” left no other option for this woman who exudes nothing but class, professionalism and pride in her school.

Many teachers who were withheld pay are getting backpay that could eventually total up to $300,000 and some commenters fretted about what that could mean for the school moving forward. An anonymous commenter wrote:

[T]his just screws all the students who play sports or even in the musical department because all the money to pay back these teachers are getting taken away from the students.

Guest” suggested that the improprieties at Fort Hamilton were hardly isolated:

Principal automomy has left issues like this in the background for a number of years.  This school is not the only one to do this.  The problem is that many of the teachers were uncertified teachers, which means they are not highly qualified.  That is against both state and federal regulations.  Additionally, the hiring freezes imposed were put in place to ensure that the ATR pool was given sufficient opportunity for interviews, since many of them are good teachers – teachers whose schools excessed them for budget purposes or teachers in closing schools.  If there were not teachers available, then the principal should have gone through the appropriate channels to ask for an exception to the hiring freeze, which if documented appropriately, may have been granted.  This was a game – hiding money, saving money and skirting the contract and regulations in place.  A good principal learns how to manage the complications of running a building.  S/he does not knowingly break the rules and then expect to be allowed to continue.

Then Last night, we reported about the ongoing tensions between teachers and the administration at New Explorations in Science, Technology, and Math, or NEST+M. For the second time in three months, members of the school community expressed frustration with the principal after she gave out ‘unsatisfactory’ ratings to several well-liked teachers. In response, teachers announced yesterday a boycott of the school’s Curriculum Night.

In the comments section, the story generated heated debate between teachers and parents, who came out divided on how the situation was handled.

Many parents expressed support for the teachers. “Former NEST Parent” wrote:

My child had several of the U-rated teachers in middle school, and I assure you that the issue is not “popularity”. I object to the U ratings because these are wonderful and effective teachers, not because they are “popular”, “liked”, or “playmates” for the children.

It is widely known at NEST that if she doesn’t like a teacher, students are called in and questioned, sometimes led to make statements against the teacher. This happened to my child, who was very upset by the process. Livanis and her assistant principals are unethical, ineffective leaders, who mistreat teachers and students. They should all be removed.

But others who said they were parents criticized the decision to boycott a parent event at the last minute.

“Guest” wrote:

While I’m sympathetic to teachers’ concerns, I was appalled that so many of them failed to show up and do what’s best for the students. It’s about the students and they should come first. There were quite a few parents (myself included) who did not have time during their work day to read the e-mails that were sent just 2 hours before the event. So we showed up, left work early, paid for childcare, and in some cases even sent in baked goods for the teachers, all for nothing. I really looked forward to meeting my child’s teachers and learning about the curriculum and I fail to see how boycotting this event would do anything to resolve the conflicts. All it has done is hurt parents and students.


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