a 360 turn

Beginning with Children Charter School to remain open, but still without long-term plan

PHOTO: Sarah Darville

Beginning with Children Charter School’s leaders reversed course on Thursday night, promising parents they would work to keep the school open just three months after they voted to close its doors come June.

The board’s November decision to close the school would have made Beginning with Children the city’s first charter school to close voluntarily before its charter expired. The Department of Education has authorized the Williamsburg school to operate until 2016.

But board members said Thursday that they had found at least preliminary solutions to most of the problems facing the school, though big questions remain unanswered.

A standoff with the teachers union over contract changes had led the Beginning with Children Foundation—one of the school’s landlords, its longtime partner, and its charter management organization—to tell the school it would no longer provide direct support after the 2013-14 school year. That left the school, whose board had shrunk to just four acting members in the fall, facing a future without a building for its elementary grades and without the organization that had provided many of the school’s resources.

The foundation has assured the board that the elementary school will be allowed to remain in its building for at least the next year, board members said at Thursday’s meeting. The board, which gained three new members in December, said it would look to replace the foundation’s support by paying for outside technological and back-office support and promoting some staff to new management positions.

But even supporters of the school’s new plan said they had few new ideas about how to improve the school’s academics. The school’s passing rates on last year’s state exams were below city and district averages, though it earned a B on its last two city progress reports, putting it at potential risk of closure by its authorizer. The foundation and the board had cited the school’s academic problems as reasons for withdrawing support in the fall.

“The question I still have is whether there’s enough support for the principals and the teachers,” board member Alex Fong said Thursday as he presented the plan. 

The decision to keep the school open wasn’t truly unanimous. The board’s chair, Antonia Bryson, and its secretary, Rebecca Baneman, both resigned before the vote, saying they didn’t think the plan was enough to turn the school around.

“For me, our charter exists so we can provide a superior education for our students,” Bryson said. “I, for one, continue to believe that we are not meeting our obligations and that the school should close.”

The elementary school's building at 11 Bartlett St. in Williamsburg, where it operates free of charge.
PHOTO: Sarah Darville
The elementary school’s building at 11 Bartlett St. in Williamsburg, where it operates free of charge.

In one of the night’s more bizarre moments, the board also noted that an absent member, John Day, had announced plans to resign. Whether he was a member to begin with had been a matter of debate, since he had resigned from the board last year only to be reinstated before the board’s November vote, bringing the board back up to the required five members.

The meeting lost its structure after the resignations as the remaining members — most new to charter school regulations — struggled with the procedures required to vote to reverse the board’s November decision.

As they worked out how to take that vote, Etoile Mitchell-Bryant, whose son attends sixth grade at the school, breathed a sigh of relief. “I was hoping this would happen,” she said. “It’s disappointing that the people with the most experience on the board decided to resign, but maybe the new people will bring new and fresh ideas with them.”

For many parents, the vote felt like the end of a long period of uncertainty for the school that helped start New York City’s charter school movement. Beginning with Children was opened in 1992 by philanthropists Joseph and Carol Reich before charter schools were allowed to operate in New York state with many of the freedoms now associated with charter schools. It transitioned to a full-fledged charter school in 2001

“Can I transfer my kid back?” one parent called from the back of the auditorium. “Of course,” Fong replied.

But Asenhat Gomez, a parent of two students in the middle school, acknowledged that that period of stress would have long-term consequences.

“It cost us a lot of students and parents who had been here forever. And we also lost a lot of really great teachers. So yes, it came at a great cost,” she said.

At one point, Fong apologized for not telling Beginning with Children students in the audience earlier that the board’s decisions had never been about them.

“What this was really about was the inability of adults to get their act together to figure things out,” he said.

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