on the defense

In annual appeal, union urges vigilance against large classes

The United Federation of Teachers is gearing up for its annual struggle to wrangle classes down to their contractual size limits.

As schools work to pinch every cent out of their compressed budgets, there are few safeguards in place to ward off swelling class sizes, and the UFT is asking members to be especially vigilant this year.

In the Sept. 1 Chapter Leader Weekly Update, the union urged its school representatives to monitor class size closely from the first day of classes so that after an “informal resolution” period ends on Sept. 21, the union can begin filing grievances.

One element of the UFT’s bid to challenge the city’s class-size efforts is in legal limbo. In 2010, the union sued the city over its spending of class size reduction funds, charging that the Department of Education had used the funds for other purposes. But this summer, an appeals court threw out the suit, ruling that the issue should be handled by the State Education Department.

Dick Riley, a UFT spokesman, said the union was still weighing how to proceed. But he said that putting pressure on the DOE early has traditionally paid off for the union, with schools rectifying many class size violations as the chaos of the first days of class wears away.

“In practice the DOE, particularly in high schools, often exceeds these limits at the beginning of the school year, but under pressure from the UFT, generally brings them down to the contractual limit, though it can take weeks for some schools to do so,” Riley said.

The union contract limits class size to 25 students in kindergarten, 32 in grades one through six and up to 35 in the upper grades. In the past, extra funding from the state enabled the city to keep class sizes even smaller in grades one through three. Now these funds have run dry.

As a result, Leonie Haimson, of Class Size Matters, said younger students will bear the brunt of increased class sizes this year, making an early response essential.

“We need to be proactive from the very first day of school, because what we know from kids and from teachers is the first two months of school are critical to a student’s success,” she said. “Everything that can be done must be done to push the DOE on this issue as quickly as possible, in as public a way as possible to shame them into trying to address this issue.”

Here’s the union’s complete message to chapter leaders about class size:

Chapter Leader Weekly Update:

Higher than anticipated retirements, deep budget cuts, growing student enrollment and the continued partial hiring freeze have created the potential for class sizes to balloon more this year than ever. That’s why it’s of utmost importance this year that chapter leaders carefully track and report class sizes in their schools. Based on your reports, the UFT will be using the expedited grievance procedure in the contract to ensure that our class-size limits are enforced. On the 1st, 6th and 10th days of school, you’ll need to obtain from your school secretary the school’s RACL for elementary or intermediate schools or the Master Schedule Final for high schools, which indicates class sizes on each of those dates, and then use that information to report to your district representative the number of oversize classes in your school on the 1st school day, Thursday, Sept. 8; on the 6th school day, Thursday, Sept. 15; and on the 10th school day, Wednesday, Sept. 21. Please use the form given to you by your district rep to provide this information. The UFT will also be monitoring the use of City Council money provided to schools to cap class sizes in grades 1, 2, and 3 at 28. The union uses these reports to gauge the scope and severity of the problem across the city. Meanwhile, speak to your principal about resolving any oversize class issues. This is the Informal Resolution period when the DOE has 10 school days to equalize registers and resolve any class-size violations. As in all grievances, do not sign any formal resolutions without speaking to your DR. At the end of this period, Sept. 21, the 10th school day, your DR must know of any classes still oversize so the union can file demands for arbitration. Class-size limitations are in Article 7M of the contract.

 

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