one more round

Regents refuse to approve city’s latest charter school renewals

Teaching Firms of America co-founder Rafiq Kalam Id-Din, with parents and staff of the school, speak with Regents Kathleen Cashin in Albany after a meeting about charter school authorization. In a rare move, Regents said they would not approve a spate of charter school renewal recommendations submitted to them by the city's Department of Education because they lacked consistency.

Updated, 6:54 p.m — The city’s charter-school oversight came under harsh scrutiny Monday after it submitted a slew of school renewal recommendations that state education officials said were too lenient.

“I wouldn’t vote to keep most of these schools open, quite honestly,” Chancellor Merryl Tisch said at a Board of Regents meeting. “None of them have a track record worth writing home about.”

City officials had recommended allowing seven of its charter schools to stay open for another two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half years, according to a report posted to the Board of Regents website on Friday (and since revised). But in a rare move, the Regents agreed to delay voting on six of the renewals, citing the city’s own reports that said several were out of compliance with federal disciplinary laws and produced lower-than-average test scores. A seventh school was abruptly taken off the agenda after a last-minute lobbying spree from the school’s founder and parents.

The renewals are typically considered rubber-stamp votes by the time they make it to the Regents agenda. This time, state officials said they wouldn’t approve the extensions until representatives from the city’s charter-school office came to Albany and explained their reasoning.

The strong rebuke comes just a month after the Board of Regents faced a barrage of criticism for signing off on a new school in Rochester whose 22-year-old founder lied about his credentials. (Only after the founder’s lies came to light was the application withdrawn.) It also puts the spotlight on the city’s charter-school office, which has shrunk and merged with another office under Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who has only selectively embraced the charter sector.

While discussing the potential renewals issue on Monday, officials pointed to the city’s own reports, which showed that five of the seven schools have been out of compliance with federal disciplinary laws. The disciplinary policy at one of the schools, Hyde Leadership Charter School – Brooklyn, said that students could be expelled for minor infractions.

“I’m sitting here wondering, well, why would they recommend renewal if there’s evidence that was strong enough to include it in the renewal [report]?” said Lester Young, a Regent from Brooklyn.

Advocates of Children of New York says the charter school sector’s compliance problems go well beyond a handful of schools. The nonprofit says it reviewed more than 150 charter school discipline policies and is “alarmed by the number of policies that fail to comport” with the state’s charter school act, according to a letter sent to Tisch last week.

The schools up for review this week struggled in other ways, according to the city’s reports.

Staten Island Community Charter School went without a principal for five months during the last school year and experienced a 68 percent turnover of its instructional staff. Another school appeared to be in dire financial straits. Bedford-Stuyvesant New Beginnings was deemed to be in a “weak position” to meet its near-term financial obligations because it had just $304,257 in cash to cover more than $1 million in current liabilities.

Academically, several of the schools underperformed district averages, although they fared better when compared to district schools that served similar populations of students.

“The DOE reviews every school’s application for renewal and possible grade expansion carefully, and bases decisions on the proposal’s educational merit,” department spokeswoman Devora Kaye said in a statement.

All seven schools that were part of the city’s renewal reports this month were approved in 2009 as part of the last cohort of charter schools created by the Department of Education. The city lost its power to authorize new schools soon after, but it still has responsibility to oversee the charters of the 70 charter schools it had already approved. (The state’s other authorizers, the State Education Department of the State University of New York, can still approve new charters.)

It’s not the first time that the city has faced scrutiny for its charter school authorizing. Michael Duffy, who headed the city’s charter-school office for nearly three years before it lost its power to authorize new charter schools, said in 2012 that it was difficult to convince officials at the Department of Education to close schools because it the Bloomberg administration had been working hard to expand the charter school sector. And a judge once ripped the department’s authorizing standards as being “riddled with inconsistencies.”

Despite Regents’ concerns that the city went too easy in their recommendations, none of the schools earned a full, five-year renewal recommendation. Three of the schools were denied requests to add grades, and leaders of one of those schools felt that the city had been far too harsh.

Teachers and staff from Teaching Firms of America Charter School in front of Tweed on Monday.
PHOTO: Brian Charles
Teachers and staff from Teaching Firms of America Charter School in front of Tweed on Monday.

In a last-minute lobbying spree that seemed to pay off, Teaching Firms of America founder Rafiq Kalam Id-Din traveled to Albany on Monday morning along with parents and staff to protest the city’s decision to deny the school’s request to add middle school grades. In New York City, more than a dozen parents and teachers waited in the lobby of the Department of Education’s headquarters demanding a meeting with Fariña.

In an interview, Kalam Id-Din said he believed the decision was “political” because an expansion would have meant the city would have had to find space for the school’s new grades. He also disputed some details in the city’s report for his school, including the suggestion that he had hired four TFOA staff members without bachelor’s degrees. Kalam Id-Din suggested that the city’s recommendation might have be racially motivated.

“Why is this happening to the only black-led charter school in Brooklyn?” he said

State Education Department officials said that Fariña asked them to take down the city’s renewal recommendation for TFOA on Sunday. They said the reason was that Kalam Id-Din had not signed the charter school agreement, though Kalam Id-Din said he wasn’t informed of Fariña’s letter until Monday afternoon.

“Someone said something to someone and the city is now negotiating,” said Assembly Member Walter Mosley, Jr., whose district includes the Bedford-Stuyvesant charter school. “I think something positive will take place.”

The other schools facing a delayed vote are Inwood Academy for Leadership Charter School and Rochdale Early Advantage Charter School. The Regents have 90 days to take action on any proposal before it is automatically approved.

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