Solidarity forever

Opportunity Charter teachers stand up for their fired colleagues

A UFT organizer hands out a pro-union flier to Emily Samuels, an Opportunity Charter School administrators. To the left, Ana Patejdl, a teacher at the school.

For the first time since more than a dozen of their colleagues were abruptly fired last month, current teachers at Opportunity Charter School spoke publicly about the administration’s response to their efforts to join the United Federation of Teachers.

A small group of the teachers joined UFT organizers outside of the school in Harlem this afternoon, carried signs and distributed fliers to passersby. They said the schools used a draconian lateness policy as cover to terminate teachers who voted to unionize earlier in the year.

Of the 15 staff members whose contracts were terminated last month, all but one voted pro-union.

The firings had a chilling effect on staff morale, said Jennifer Mitchell, a fourth year teacher.

“People don’t feel safe here. They don’t feel appreciated,” she said.

Mitchell, one of the longest-tenured teachers at the school, which opened in 2004, said the school had drifted from its founding mission to serve high need students.

“The school has changed dramatically since I started,” she said. “Now I feel like I work for a company, not a school.”

Much of the ire was focused on a rigid lateness policy that the teachers said has been inconsistently altered and enforced this year. Several former teachers lost their jobs because of the policy, which suspended teachers for a week without pay if they arrived at school after 7:45 a.m.

One of those teachers was Meg Fein, an English teacher. Fein said the school suspended her the week before her students took last year’s ELA exam. She asked the administration if she could come in anyway – without pay – to prepare her students for the exam, but was denied.

“Immediately before an exam, it’s beneficial to review everything. It’s fresh in their minds. It’s absolutely important,” said Fein.

“I think it had a hugely negative effect,” Fein added, referring to her students’ test scores.

Several of Fein’s supporters attended the protest, including Qays Sapp, a recent graduate of OCS, and his mother. Sapp is dyslexic and was reading on a third grade reading level when he entered Fein’s class.

“I had dyslexia and she took the time to help me after class,” Sapp said. “She really cared about her students.”

In the fall, Sapp will attend Bunker Hill Community College in Massachusetts.

School management, meanwhile, remained silent and have not spoken publicly since the staff voted in May. Even internally, administrators have not officially indicated a position on unionizing activities, said teacher Nayomi Reghay, who said she last interacted with them at a board meeting last month.

“I got the impression that they didn’t want to share anything that their lawyer hadn’t already scripted,” Reghay said.

In an awkward encounter today, one administrator, Emily Samuels, Director of Development at the school, took a flier from an organizer and smiled before she entered the school.

“We have no comment,” Samuels said.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

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.