Deeper look

Haslam to name task force on school safety in Tennessee

Gov. Bill Haslam is creating a task force to review school safety across Tennessee.

Gov. Bill Haslam will appoint a task force to look comprehensively at school safety in Tennessee amid intense state and national reflection over last month’s deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

The governor said Thursday that the group will include law enforcement, education leaders, mental health professionals, and legislators. He added that he wants their work completed quickly in case the state legislature, which is expected to adjourn in April, needs to authorize additional spending.

“There could be something that affects this budget …,” he told reporters. “We’ll turn in a supplemental budget in about three weeks. There is a sense of urgency about that in case there is something that needs to be addressed.”

Haslam also questioned the wisdom of a bill now moving through the legislature that would open the door to arming select teachers with handguns.

“My first thought is I don’t think that’s the answer because I think it’s a very small percentage teachers that would want to be armed,” he said.

One of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. David Byrd, said he’s only bringing up his proposal because most schools districts don’t have enough funding to hire law enforcement to patrol their schools. Only 40 percent of Tennessee schools are watched over by law enforcement known as school resource officers, according to testimony before a House subcommittee earlier this week.

“I don’t know the answer,” Haslam said of finding additional money for school security. “Obviously, we’re looking at everything. We’ve got to figure out what’s fiscally possible both for us and also the local education authorities and come up with a plan.”

Meanwhile, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the legislature would be wise to listen to teachers as they consider Byrd’s bill to arm some school personnel.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits Middle College High School in Memphis as part of her statewide tour of schools.

“I have had multiple emails and/or conversations with teachers to the point of this is not something I would prefer to do. I have very rarely, if any, heard the opposite,” McQueen said while visiting Middle College High School in Memphis.

The bill passed in a House subcommittee on Wednesday and is scheduled to be considered next Tuesday by the full Civil Justice Committee. The proposal is opposed by the state’s largest teachers union, as well as by Haslam’s administration and the state Department of Education.

McQueen’s department doesn’t have an alternative, but the commissioner said it’s taking stock of current school safety resources, as well as potential additional funding sources for hiring more officers.

“We’re also looking at the big picture of mental health, school psychologists, school counselors,” she said. “Let’s have a big landscape view of all the resources that are available and then make some recommendations based on that data.”

call for more

Almost half of Detroit district schools don’t have a gym teacher. Next year, that may change.

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Since 10-year-old Hezekiah Haynesworth moved to his new school in the Detroit district, he’s always up out of his seat, talking to classmates and getting into trouble.

His mother, Victoria, says he wasn’t always like this. She believes he has nowhere to burn off excess energy because Bagley Elementary doesn’t offer students enough time for gym class or recess.

Bagley Elementary is one of 49 schools in the district without a gym teacher. Out of the 106 schools in the district, only 57 have at least one certified, full-time physical education teacher, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat.

The district employs 68 certified full-time physical education teachers for its student population of 50,875. More than 15,000 Detroit schoolchildren attend a school without a full time physical education teacher.

In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified, which means some kids, like Hezekiah, might only go once a month or less.

“He’s had behavior issues, but if he had the gym time there’s different activities he would do to burn off energy,” she said. “They would get that anxiety and fidgetiness out of them.”

Haynesworth might get her wish. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti announced earlier this month that there’s money in the budget to put gym teachers back in schools, along with art and music teachers and guidance counselors next school year, though the budget plan has not yet been approved.

“Not every student is provided an opportunity for physical education or gym” right now, Vitti said at a meeting earlier this month.

The district has almost 200 teacher vacancies, and giving schools money for a gym teacher doesn’t mean a school will be able to hire one.

But Vitti said he has several efforts in the works, like more recruiting trips and better hiring practices, to address the difficulties of finding and bringing in new employees.

Detroit is not the only district that has cut back on physical education teachers in recent years. At a time when schools are heavily judged by how well students perform on math and reading exams, some schools have focused their resources on core subjects, cutting back on the arts and gym and cutting recess to make more time for instruction and test prep. But experts say that approach is short-sighted.

Research on the importance of physical activity in schools has reached a consensus — physical education improves children’s focus and makes them better students.

“Available evidence suggests that mathematics and reading are the academic topics that are most influenced by physical activity,” according to a 2013 federal report.

The link between physical education and improved reading is especially important for the Detroit district. Educators are working in high gear, in part pushed by Vitti, to prepare for the state’s tough new law that will go into effect in 2020, requiring third-graders who don’t read at grade level to be held back.

This year, the Michigan Department of Education has started to include data on physical education in schools into its school scoring system, which allows parents to compare schools. A separate score for physical education might push schools to hire physical education teachers.

Whether the state’s new emphasis on gym class or Vitti’s proposal to place a gym teacher in each district school is enough to put physical activity back in the schools is unclear, but Hezekiah’s mom Victoria desperately hopes it happens.

Hezekiah is given 45 minutes to each lunch, and if he finishes early, he’s allowed to run with the other children who finished early. If he doesn’t eat quickly enough to play, Victoria says she can expect a call about his disruptive behavior.

“I used to think that my son was just a problem — that it was just my problem,” she said. “But it’s a system problem. They don’t have the components they should have in the school.”

See which schools have gym teachers below.

Out of the game

The businessman who went to bat for apprenticeships is out of Colorado’s governor’s race

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Noel Ginsburg, an advocate for apprenticeships and a critic of Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law, has withdrawn from the Democratic race for governor.

Ginsburg, a businessman who had never run for office before, always faced a tough road to the nomination. He announced Tuesday that he would not continue with the petition-gathering or assembly process after his last place finish in the caucus, where he got 2 percent of the vote.

In an interview with The Denver Post, Ginsburg said, “I don’t believe I have the resources to be fully competitive.”

Just last month, Ginsburg released an education platform that called for the repeal of Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law, the signature legislative achievement of former state Sen. Mike Johnston, also a candidate for governor.

Ginsburg runs CareerWise, an apprenticeship initiative of Gov. John Hickenlooper that allows students to earn money and college credit while getting on-the-job experience starting in high school. His platform called for expanding apprenticeship programs and getting businesses more involved in education.

He also promised to lead a statewide effort to change the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights to allow the state to retain more revenue and send much of it to schools. He said that schools, not roads, should be the top priority of Colorado’s next governor.

Ginsburg will continue at the head of CareerWise, as well as Intertech Plastics, the company he founded.

Johnston, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne have all turned in signatures to place their names on the ballot. Former Treasurer Cary Kennedy, who has the endorsement of two teachers unions, is not gathering signatures and will need at least 30 percent of the vote at the assembly to appear on the ballot. Kennedy finished in first place at the caucus earlier this month.