language acquisition

At P.S. 111, call for public-private alliance yields translation help

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan (middle) visited P.S. 111 in Hell's Kitchen to discuss PENCIL partnerships with Principal Irma Medina (right).

As the neighborhood around her school transformed into a cultural melting pot, Principal Irma Medina sensed that the city education department’s translation services wouldn’t be adequate to break through  language barriers for new parents.

By 2010, over 40 languages were represented at P.S. 111 in Hell’s Kitchen, Medina said. So to improve communication with parents at the school, Medina turned to an increasingly popular option: donated services.

Through the help of PENCIL, a nonprofit that forges school-business leader partnerships, Medina’s translation needs were matched to VOCES, the Latino Heritage Network of The New York Times Company, headquartered about a half mile down the road near Times Square.

The public-private partnership is now one of 395 that PENCIL manages in 377 schools in New York City. With the support from cash-strapped city education officials, PENCIL hopes to nearly double that number in coming years.

As part of the P.S. 111 partnership, VOCES has donated resources as well as its professional expertise in translation services to support Medina’s growing need for translations, which include information for parent association meetings and weekly school-issued material.

The department’s in-house translation service, which translate 10 languages, responds to requests based on a first-come, first-served basis. Other languages have to be outsourced to translator vendors. For Medina, that wasn’t an ideal arrangement.

“If you submit something to the Department of Ed, yeah, you can get it translated, but I don’t know how long it’s going to take,” Medina said.

Since partnering with VOCES, Medina said that attendance at parent association meetings is up 30 percent. She attributes the increase in being able to reach more of her foreign-born families, including one that speaks a rare African dialect.

“Even if they didn’t have a translator available, this group is amazing,” Medina said about VOCES. “Within their own network of support they would be able to find someone who was able to translate.”

Losing the work seems to be okay with Chancellor Dennis Walcott and other top education officials, who have encouraged schools to forge public-private partnerships at a time when school budgets are shrinking. Last year, amid a fourth straight year of cuts, Walcott pledged to double the number of PENCIL partnerships in New York City.

“These leaders can meet principals around their specific needs,” Walcott said at the time. “One of the principals said she was doing something and her corporate partner said, ‘there’s a better way you can do it.’ That’s the type of value these partners are adding to the system.”

The public-private partnership trend is also favored by U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who said a cornerstone of his education reforms while running Chicago Public Schools was partnering with the private sector to help schools become more efficient.

“I think the question I have is when you see something this positive you always want to see it expand,” Duncan said after meeting with Medina at P.S. 111 last week. “So the question is, could more schools in this city, could more cities have theses kinds of public-private partnerships?”

PENCIL officials said that about 20 percent of their partnerships end each year as part of natural attrition — sometimes a business moves its headquarters or a professional gets a job in another city.

But President Michael Haberman said he has found it easy to recruit and retain business leaders to work with schools through PENCIL, which also manages about 50 school-business partnerships in Baltimore, Rochester and Philadephia (and soon in Chicago). He said he’s found that businesses get more out of their charitable work when they are volunteering time instead of just donating money.

“It doesn’t have to be about just writing a check,” Haberman said. “It’s more about working on the ground in a school throughout the year.”

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

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