as the dust settles

After city pays millions in SESIS overtime, complications remain

Screen Shot 2013-11-21 at 3.31.54 PMSpecial education teachers say it’s a common feeling: the students are gone for the day, and it’s time for the real work to begin. But if they need to record something on a student’s Individualized Education Program, it’s probably too late.

Early efforts to curb overtime payments have now become policy, as the Department of Education reminds principals to keep staff members out of SESIS—the online system that tracks special education students—after the school day ends unless the principal has committed to pay for that time. The reminders were spurred by arbitration that ultimately cost the city $41 million in belated overtime to teachers and staff whose after-hours work violated union contracts.

For months, some principals have been looking for ways to give teachers more time during the day to work with the notoriously glitchy system (made more frustrating by slow school Internet speeds). But teachers and principals say that serious problems remain, as students’ information is now updated more slowly, data entry takes time away from student interaction, and some teachers continue to work without pay.

“Is that the reality? Of course it’s the reality,” said Carmen Alvarez, the UFT’s vice president for special education, of the continuing issues. “Do I like it? No. Did we tell it to the DOE three years ago in writing? Yes.”

Keyatta Hendricks, a special education teacher at P.S. 463 in the Bronx, says the new rules mean her principal does pay her for the extra hours she spends on SESIS, which average four on an average week and shoot up to 10 hours during busy periods. “My principal knows it’s impossible for me to do my job and to do all the IEPs in the building,” she said.

Alvarez said that most principals seem to be abiding by those new guidelines. But Hendricks said the increased pressure to complete the data entry during the day has real consequences. “What happens is, I’m not able to really work with my kids the way I’d like to. I don’t have the time to devote to help teachers differentiate instruction to meet their needs. There are days I’m not able to work with my kids,” she said.

The union arbitration hasn’t changed things at all schools. Mark Anderson, the special education coordinator at M.S. 228 Jonas Bronck Academy in the Bronx, said the decision hasn’t changed when he does most of the work on students IEPs—at home, at night.

The extra periods he gets as special education coordinator and his lunch periods are mostly spent in meetings with parents and coordinating services for students, he said. Lesson planning takes up more time, and unexpected glitches in SESIS, like floating error messages that obscure windows and can’t be closed, aren’t always easy to work around.

“I try to get as much done at school as I can, but it’s physically impossible given the time it takes to enter in information,” Anderson said, who said he hadn’t had a conversation with his principal about being paid for that work. “For me, it’s just part of the job in order to get all of my work done.”

Darlene Cameron, principal at P.S. 63 Star Academy in Manhattan, said that the system only holds together because teachers are willing to squeeze the work in wherever they can. “In general, they’re doing a lot of stuff during their lunch time or during their prep time, when they really should be planning lessons,” she said. “It’s been really difficult.”

“This is what you call an unfunded mandate,” said Evan Schwartz, principal of Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical High School.

And though teachers and principals say they’ve been looking for ways to make the work less burdensome, the Department of Education maintains that the system doesn’t require work outside the school day at all.

A document meant to help teachers, therapists and other staff use SESIS to record information about students.
A document meant to help teachers, therapists and other staff use SESIS to record information about students.

David Brodsky, director of the Department of Education’s office of labor relations, said that the essence of the arbitration was the claim that work was made more complicated by SESIS itself. “We obviously disagree,” he said, noting that schools with bandwidth issues may have faced additional issues. “We don’t think the work being asked of them is complicated. This is something any professional should be able to do.”

In response to the arbitration, the city provided new guidelines to principals in February. Speech teachers, ESL teachers, vision and hearing teachers, and paraprofessionals are supposed to have specific time allotted for SESIS responsibilities. Others were advised to “prioritize” the tasks (occupational and physical therapists) or to “confer with their supervisors” to discuss scheduling (teachers, guidance counselors, social workers, and psychologists). Principals have not received additional money to pay teachers for SESIS work.

The city has been reminding principals of the changes this fall, and schools have devised some solutions of their own. At the Academy of Scholarship and Entrepreneurship in the Bronx, all students are in lunch during fourth period, which teachers use for curriculum planning. On Thursdays, special education teachers have that period free to work on SESIS, special education teacher Patrick Rush said.

Antoinette Isable-Jones, a spokeswoman for the principals union, criticized some of the city’s guidelines as “ambiguous suggestions that left school leaders with few options.”

“At this point, schools are doing all that they can within the confines of the decision to properly perform SESIS-related work,” she said.

All parties acknowledge that problems arise from the difficulty of working with SESIS itself. The system’s glitches have been well-documented since its introduction in 2011. At a City Council education committee meeting in October, Corinne Rello-Anselmi, the Department of Education deputy chancellor in charge of special education, said the city was still working to improve SESIS. “It’s had a bumpy ride,” she said.

The system did get a round of upgrades at the end of October to make the interface more user-friendly, though teachers who worked with it said they remained frustrated that those changes were mostly cosmetic.

“It doesn’t seem to make anything too much easier,” Rush said. “It’s all the same functionality.”

Patrick Wall contributed reporting. 

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