being heard

Ahead of special ed hearing, advocates say many concerns need airing

Last May, Gloria Corsino was enlisted by a Spanish-speaking mother who needed help finding an occupational therapist for her son. Faced with an English-only list of therapists to call after his school couldn’t provide the services for her son’s disability, the mother was stumped.

Language wasn’t the only barrier that Corsino, president of the Citywide Education Council for District 75, found when she started calling.

“There was no provider who could take the child on,” Corsino recalled, noting that she dialed up more than 20 private therapists, all of whom told her they were no longer working with the Department of Education and could not help.

Corsino is among the many advocates ready to air their concerns at a special education hearing on Tuesday, which is being convened by the City Council’s education committee and is expected to touch on issues of equity, class sizes, and how best to improve instruction for students with disabilities.

To some, the hearing will be a chance to raise issues about the inequities that were revealed in data provided to Chalkbeat by the Department of Education showing that students living in some poorer and more far-flung neighborhoods received one category of required services less often than other city students.

“It’s unacceptable,” said former high school teacher Mark Treyger, now a City Council member representing Coney Island, where those services weren’t being delivered 2.5 times more often than the citywide average. “This data validates that the ‘outer’ outer boroughs don’t always get their fair share.”

Treyger is one of 13 elected officials sponsoring a bill that will also be up for discussion at the hearing. The legislation would force the city to annually release information about how often it is not meeting the requirements of students’ personalized learning plans.

The City Council doesn’t have the power to force the city to change its policies, but officials said they crafted the bill to mimic legislation that has required the city to reveal more school-discipline data — information that advocates believe has helped reduce suspension rates as the city worked to lower those figures.

“A big part of it is shedding a light on this so we can get to the bottom of this,” said Daniel Dromm, who chairs the education committee. “They’re doing some things that we’re happy about, but I think more needs to be done.”

Corsino’s testimony will focus on a dearth of therapists who can provide “related services,” the type of special-education support that includes physical therapy, counseling, and help for sight or hearing problems. Chalkbeat found that more than 15,000 different services went unprovided at the end of the last school year — about 6 percent of all mandated services. That figure is down 15 percent since 2010, though the numbers have crept up in some neighborhoods, especially in the Bronx.

“These services are a necessary thing to make our students much more functional,” said Corsino, a parent of two high school-aged sons with autism-spectrum disorders. “When you don’t receive those services, you aren’t going to get the outcomes that you could be getting.”

Also under a microscope will be the city’s broader special education reform effort, which has incentivized schools to serve special-needs students whom they might have referred elsewhere in the past. The changes are broad in scope: Nearly one in five city students is classified as having special needs, and over the last two years, the share of those recommended to receive only part-time support has jumped 10 percentage points.

Last fall, the teachers union received 151 complaints from teachers related to special education, a 60 percent increase over the same period a year before. The complaints, first reported by Chalkbeat, reflect the new demands that have been placed on schools by the overhaul.

Karen Sprowal, a parent advocate whose special-needs son is in sixth grade, said that she plans to lobby the education committee to seek more funding in the city’s capital budget for schools to reduce class sizes and hire more staff to help schools with the new guidelines.

Others see the hearing as an opportunity to get beyond the questions of legal mandates and ask questions about what those students with disabilities are learning.

Kim Sweet, executive director of Advocates for Children of New York, is waiting to hear about how the department can help schools lift academic achievement for students with disabilities. Just 6 percent of those students hit the state’s proficiency standard on its English and math exams in the 2012-13 school year, compared to 35 percent of students without disabilities.

“It’s really time to focus on preparing these schools pedagogically to meet the needs of a wider range of students,” Sweet 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

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