exclusive

Under pressure, charter schools nix cash-for-applicant tactic

A city charter school network abruptly abandoned a recruiting effort today that would have paid families cash rewards for bringing new students to its schools. The retraction happened two and a half hours after I reported the effort on Twitter earlier today.

Screen shot 2013-10-04 at 9.20.17 PM
A screenshot of the bulletin posted to Girls Prep charter school’s web site, offering cash to parents who recruited students. Girls Prep’s network later removed the page after canceling the program.The network, Public Prep, yanked an bulletin for the offer on the website of two of its charters.

The tweet caused a “firestorm,” said Public Prep CEO Ian Rowe, and even prompted a worried call from the Department of Education. “Given the way it’s been framed and received, we decided to pull it,” he said.

The cash reward was available at two Girls Prep Lower East Side schools, which have vacant seats in their kindergarten through sixth grades. Public Prep promised to give current parents a $100 cash card and a $100 contribution to a college savings plan if they found students to enroll at the schools and stay for at least three months.

Rowe said the program was part of an aggressive recruiting strategy required by the Lower East Side’s competitive school marketplace. Besides attracting students, he said, another goal was to “incentivize our families to start saving for college.”

The recruiting tactic drew scrutiny from people in and out of the charter school community who said it undermined a core value of charter schools. Charter schools are supposed to compete with district schools based on the quality of education they offer students, and families are empowered to make a choice based on that. The bulletin also suggested that the schools do not truly have the same level of demand that supporters often boast about.

“It looks like you have to be paying people,” said a charter school official who requested anonymity so that he could speak openly. “So what kind of demand are you talking about?”

City school officials also took notice of the tweet. A department spokesman said he notified the city’s charter school office after seeing the tweet.

“As soon as we became aware of the program, our charter office contacted both the network and SUNY to notify them,” said the spokesman, Devon Puglia, referring to the organization that authorized the charter school. “As always, if we see something we believe another authorizer or charter network needs to be aware of, we contact the appropriate people. That’s exactly what happened here.”

When I first spoke to Rowe about the bulletin, he explained the program and didn’t mention any plans to cancel it. After speaking to the department, Rowe called me back to say he was abandoning the plan.

The recruiting tool was similar to another one used by a different charter school in 2010 that drew criticism from charter school advocates.

The episode supports one side of a debate about demand for charter schools in the city.

Charter school supporters point to long waiting lists as evidence of the large number of parents who want to send their children to charter schools but can’t find a spot. This year, more than 50,000 students are on waiting lists to attend charter schools, according to the New York City Charter Center.

But critics argue that marketing tactics inflate the numbers artificially, making the number of families who want charter schools but can’t get into them seem bigger than it really is.

Indeed, even as Public Prep was actively recruiting new families to fill vacancies, Rowe said the two schools currently have 182 students on their waiting lists.

How can schools with such a long waiting list also have vacancies? Rowe explained that enrollment is a challenge for his schools because they are housed in one of the city’s un-zoned districts, where families can pick which school they want to attend.

“We feel like we need to constantly recruit on the Lower East Side,” Rowe said. Public Prep also operates a school in the Bronx and plans to open another there next year.

But Lisa Donlan, president of the district’s Community Education Council, said Rowe’s problems weren’t unique to his charter schools.

“We have an all-choice district so our schools are always struggling for enrollment,” Donlan said. “It’s something that many of our schools have to deal with.”

The ability to offer a cash incentive as a recruitment strategy struck Donlan as an unfair tactic that swayed the competitive playing field in the favor of charter schools, she said.

“It reinforces for me the differences that exist between the charter schools and district schools,” Donlan added.

This story was originally published Oct. 4 at 9:36 p.m.

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