expanded success

In study, black and Latino students explain their paths to college

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The Expanded Success Initiative Leadership Summit brought together students from the 40 participating schools in June.

One student credited a specific teacher who taught English like a college-level course. Some recalled their parents not allowing them to spend time outside to avoid gang activity. Others remembered teachers who calmed them before taking the SAT.

Those were some of the responses students gave in new study that worked backwards from male black and Latino students’ success, looking at college-bound, academically successful high school juniors and seniors at 40 schools and asking, what worked?

To find the answers, a group of University of Pennsylvania researchers in conjunction with the city interviewed more than 400 high school students and recent graduates who had at least a 3.0 grade point average, were involved in extracurricular activities, and planned to attend college (or were already attending). The students attended the 40 high schools selected last year to be a part of the Expanded Success Initiative, each with at least 60 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch.

The results are a fascinating look at the students’ lives. You can read the whole study here, but we picked out some highlights:

Giving credit to families: Researchers said “nearly every student” told them that their families had presented college as their only post-high-school option. Most also said their home lives were very structured, and that parents had heavily restricted their time spent outdoors with others in the neighborhood.

Participants were well acquainted with the problematic educational status of young men of color in NYC high schools. Most did not perceive themselves as smarter or better than their peers – they just had stricter parents and made different choices, had clearer goals, and were more firmly committed to actualizing those goals. Their lower performing peers did not have the same kinds of structured home environments, many participants observed.

School as a safety mechanism: Students said that gang members in their neighborhoods hadn’t tried to recruit them because of their academic reputations, and a few even said they had been singled out by gang members who told them to study in order “to be the ones who grew up to be successful.”

For sure there were gangs in many of their communities, and they knew firsthand of peers from their blocks and schools who were affiliated. They often had to walk past neighbors who were engaged in gang-related activities during their commutes home from school. Despite this exposure, most were deemed unfit for membership. “I think it’s because they know I am a good student and I’m not about that life,” one participant theorized. Others explained that they had amassed for themselves reputations for being serious students and performing well in school. Therefore, gang members knew they were unlikely to respond favorably to invitations to join. Also, not spending much time outside provided some immunity from gang courtship. “Those guys know that I don’t even hang out, they don’t even see me outside.”

Challenges to working at home: Homework and studying are often not possible for students to do outside of school because of noise at home, family conflict, or other stresses. For some that meant doing homework elsewhere, and for others it meant studying less.

Prior to beginning each interview, we had participants complete a four-page profile form that included basic demographic information and other general questions (clubs in which they held membership, college campuses they visited, etc.). Half the students reported that they studied one hour or less each day; 52 indicated they spent zero hours doing homework and studying outside of school. Across the sample, students spent an average of 1.6 hours on schoolwork at home. Apparently, time was made available for them to do homework throughout the school day.

School as a second home: Those issues mean that students often stayed at school until as late as 7 p.m., even after extracurricular activities had ended.

Our research team members were occasionally at sites after the school day ended; in many instances, the buildings seemed as vibrant at 4:30 as they were several hours prior. Intriguing to us were the palpable cultures of trust. Adults clearly trusted students to hang out after school. Those who chose to remain in the school building (as opposed to being outside with other similarly-aged boys in their neighborhoods) were not the same students who routinely broke rules or performed poorly in their courses. Principals and teachers were there, but it was clear that students had enormous freedom to use the school buildings in assorted ways. It is worth noting here that no participant reported that peers were using after-hours access to the school buildings to do bad things.

Teachers who go the extra mile: Students often cited the adults with the highest academic expectations as their favorite teachers. They also pointed to moments in which teachers helped them get through their most difficult moments, a list researchers called “nearly innumerable.”

Here are five stories they told: (1) a teacher introduced one student who wants to be a physician to her own personal doctor; (2) a student who ran away from his abusive father received support and advice from a teacher at every juncture in the process; (3) a teacher permitted a sick student to nap at her desk during lunchtime and left the building to buy him hot chocolate from Dunkin’ Donuts; (4) one teacher offered marathon tutoring from 9am to 9pm on Saturdays for students who were at risk of failing algebra; and (5) a teacher visited one student’s mom in the hospital after she had a stroke.

Taking the next steps: Many students lack information about how to make the transition from high school to college, especially about the logistics of financing higher education. Overburdened guidance counselors are a common issue.

We occasionally asked if they knew about the Gates Millennium Scholars Program, income threshold and no-loans financial aid policies at elite private colleges and universities, or the Posse Foundation’s scholars program (financial aid initiatives for which their grade point averages and socioeconomic statuses would likely qualify them); their answers were almost always no.

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