day fifteen

Policies to help parents cope with strike fall short, advocates say

Leilany Andrade left P.S. 224 on Tuesday, after her first day back since the school bus strike began.

Edith Rodriguez’s daughter Leilany Andrade went back to school on Tuesday for the first time since the bus strike began three weeks ago.

Andrade, a first grader, has special needs and requires a classroom environment not available in her neighborhood. So she attends P224, a District 75 school in northern Queens not served by the subway.

Rodriguez and her husband would have to spend six to eight hours a day in transit — with their three-year-old son in tow — if they wanted to take Leilany to school and pick her up. And they couldn’t afford to front the money for cab fare or miss their shifts at the bakery where she works mornings and the restaurant where he works afternoons. So they kept Leilany home.

“All the last two weeks, she was asking me, ‘Why aren’t I going to school, when can I go back?'” Rodriguez said. “I tried to explain to her a little that there were no buses.”

Leilany’s story is one of many advocates say show that the Department of Education’s efforts to support families during the bus strike have fallen short.

A city policy rolled out Jan. 22 to let parents bill cab fares directly to the Department of Education, and the department has so approved more than 1,100 students to bill the city for their transportation costs, according to a spokeswoman. But the policy covered only the legs of each trip where parents were present. Under that policy, Rodriguez or her husband would still have had to take public transportation from P224 to work and back to pick Leilany up — spending four hours between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. on the bus or train each day.

After negotiating with the Department of Education for over a week, lawyers at Advocates for Children persuaded the department on Friday to authorize Rodriguez for all four taxi rides it takes to accompany her daughter to and from school each day.

“This is an evolving policy of the Department of Education,” said Maggie Moroff, the special education policy coordinator at Advocates for Children. “Initially it was reimbursement only. Then it was pre-imbursement, but pre-imbursement for only the two trips where the child was actually in the car. Now under certain circumstances it covers all four, but that’s on a case-by-case basis. The policy is so evolving that this is the first week we’re actually seeing parents getting all four rides covered.”

Daily attendance in District 75 schools, which serve severely disabled students, remains more than 10 percentage points below average, meaning that more than 2,500 students are missing school each day who likely would not if buses were running normally.

Transportation is not the only issue families are facing. While Leilany was stuck at home, Rodriguez was determined to help her complete several packets of class work provided by the school. Rodriguez doesn’t speak English, so she entered all of the text into Google Translate.

At a press conference Tuesday called by Public Advocate Bill de Blasio to push for a resolution to the strike, special education parent and advocate Lori Podvesker said the materials posted online by the Department of Education aren’t particularly useful even to English-speaking parents of students with special needs. The materials are organized by grade level, but, she said, “our kids are not on grade level. Their educational plans are very tailored to their needs and where they are developmentally.”

De Blasio called on the mayor to negotiate with the union and end the strike. “Obviously parents did not expect to have to use the do-it-yourself approach to education,” he said. “This can’t go on like this. It just can’t continue, because parents can’t just figure out how to address the needs of their children educationally if they can’t get them to school. You can’t do it yourself at home.”

Parents who are overcoming steep obstacles to get their children to school face other challenges.

Lucia Emile still hasn’t gotten reimbursed for more than two weeks worth of cab fares she paid out of pocket to bring her son from their home in Brooklyn to the Center for Autism Charter School on the Upper East Side. She filed for reimbursement but hasn’t heard anything from the Department of Education.

So far, the department has received 3,556 reimbursement requests, but does not have information about how many reimbursements have actually been issued, according to a spokeswoman.

“We paid all three weeks of fares and they haven’t given us any reply or told us what is going on,” Emile said. “They made it seem like, we’re really going to take care of you. Just go online, get the form, mail it in, and we’ll reimburse you. We thought by now we would get the payment from the first week.” She said she does not know anyone who has been reimbursed.

The strike comes at a time when the city is working to overhaul how students with disabilities are assigned to schools. For the first time this year, schools were told that they had to accept all students in their zone who applied, regardless of the students’ disabilities.

Concern that some students might be placed in inappropriate settings to satisfy the city’s mandates has some critics wary of the reforms. But the transportation nightmares created by the bus strike point to one benefit of educating students closer to home.

“It’s not like busing is a great perk special ed students get,” said Shanna Yarbrough, the parent of a second-grader who has autism. “The schools that are closest to us don’t have classes for our children. We’re not welcome there. We have to go elsewhere.”

Many of the students affected by the strike already have trouble with transitions. “He’s off his game,” Yarbrough said of her son, who has had to adjust to taking the bus and train from Park Slope to his school in Sheepshead Bay.

“This change has a domino effect into a lot of aspects of his daily routine. It’s very detrimental,” she said.

Yarbrough said one of the most frustrating aspects of the strike is not being able to get answers to her questions. She said that when she called the Office of Pupil Transportation, she was told, “I don’t know anything, check the news,” and instructed to call 311, the city’s customer service hotline.

Yarbrough said she called 311 and was transferred to parent services, then told that any questions about the strike not related to reimbursement should be directed to Chancellor Dennis Walcott via mail.

“That was the extent of the help I could receive exhausting every resource I could find online and calling 311,” Yarbrough said. “That was the best information I got. Here’s a mailing address, you can write a letter.”

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