Bully pulpit

Walcott: Charter schools shouldn't need to pay to fill their seats

Chancellor Dennis Walcott criticized a charter network’s brief campaign to boost enrollment using cash incentives, arguing that charter schools shouldn’t have to do much recruitment at all.

“[I] think it was unnecessary,” said Walcott, referring to a $200 incentive offered by Girls Prep to families that referred new students to some of the network’s schools. Hours after GothamSchools reported about the offer last week, the schools’ management network, Public Prep, canceled the program and yanked a notice about the offer from its website.

“Charters, quite frankly, if they’re worth their salt, have people knocking down their door,” Walcott told reporters after he appeared on a panel of leaders in public education at NBC’s Education Nation summit. “So there’s no need for them to do that.”

Of course, it’s not unusual for charter schools to spend money on marketing to recruit students, and most schools allocate at least a small sum in their budget to the effort. Success Academy, for instance, spent close to $1 million in 2011 on subway advertisements and glossy mailers in areas where new schools were opening. Even district schools — high schools, in particular — have been known to hire marketing and public relations consultants to elevate their profile to parents and students during their intense search for a high school.

At Girls Prep on the Lower East Side, which was looking to fill eight vacancies between its elementary and middle schools, there were additional enrollment challenges, school officials said. Being an all-girls school, it has a smaller pool of students to recruit from. And it’s especially hard to attract families in a fluid marketplace of a district where parents can select which elementary schools to send their children to. Most districts assign students to schools based on where they live.

But the incentivized nature of Girls Prep’s short-lived strategy seemed to strike a nerve, in part because critics suggested that it challenged the notion that the growth of the city’s charter schools are largely based on demand for more seats. (Officials noted that the vacancies were concentrated in certain grades, and that 182-student wait list were for grades at capacity. They said that the wait list for its Bronx charter school hovered around 300).

The concern extended to Walcott’s Department of Education, which reached out to Public Prep after learning about the recruiting strategy on Friday. Walcott said that although his authority over how charter schools operate is limited, he can still wield some influence over the sector’s practices.

“I guess the bully pulpit of what I just said is sending a signal out that that shouldn’t be done at all,” Walcott said.

On Monday, Public Prep CEO Ian Rowe acknowledged Walcott’s comments about the program. “We agree,” he said, “which is why we took it down.”

Walcott’s comments come on the day before Public Prep schools join other charter schools for a rally being organized by several large charter management organizations. The rally, which organizers said they hope will exceed 10,000, is meant to send a message to mayoral frontrunner Bill de Blasio, who has criticized the salaries of people running the CMOs and threatened to charge rents to some schools in city-owned buildings.

But the rally has also turned off many in the charter sector who see it as being the wrong approach to seeking influence with de Blasio, who leads in the polls by as many as 50 points against Republican Joe Lhota. Few independent charter schools are participating and the the city’s main charter school advocacy organization, the New York City Charter Center, is not participating in it.

Last week, Walcott defended the role that the city’s largest charter school network, Success Academies, was playing in the rally. The 20-school network is closing schools for the duration of the rally to encourage its parents and students to attend.

“Success has done a masterful job at educating their students,” Walcott said last week, citing top results by the network’s schools on the 2013 state tests. “I have confidence that they balance both the educational needs of their students as well as the role of civic engagement.”

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