Back to school

As schools stabilize, some students and supplies still missing

Council members Christine Quinn and Domenic Recchia hand out school supplies to students at I.S. 281 in Bensonhurst (Credit: William Alatriste)

If today’s attendance figures were a test of how well the city’s schools are rebounding from Hurricane Sandy, as Chancellor Dennis Walcott said they would be last week, then the city scored a 91 percent overall.

Even as 34 city schools remain unmoored from their damaged buildings, thousands more students showed up for classes today for the first time since the schools closed in October. At the same time, charitable efforts are shifting their focus toward replenishing those schools with basic supplies—most recently through a million dollar campaign, launched today, to supply students with backpacks and other supplies.

The city’s overall attendance rate is climbing, but schools in the areas that the hurricane hit the hardest are still struggling to fill their rosters. Of the fifteen schools that returned to their original buildings today, after relocating a week ago, Department of Education officials said about 77 percent showed up on average. And among the 37 relocated schools, two-thirds of students showed up—double the percentage from last week.

At Rockaway Collegiate High School, which relocated to Queens Metropolitan High School, just under half the student body came to school. At Beach Channel High School, which relocated to Franklin K. Lane High School in Jamaica, Queens, only 41 percent of students showed up.  And at P.S. 253, the attendance rate was 29.4 percent today, it’s last day at a relocated site. Officials announced this afternoon that it and two other schools—Mark Twain I.S. 239 and P.S. 279 Herman Schreiber—would be returning to their buildings starting tomorrow thanks to new repairs.

Yesterday city officials said all but six schools will likely return to their buildings by the end of November. The rest will have to wait until at least January, 2013. To stick to that timeline, the city will funnel $200 million in capital funds into school repairs.

Last week, Chancellor Dennis Walcott said city officials were hopeful that attendance would rise again in the displaced schools after taking Veterans Day off. Today officials said the attendance rates were a big step in the right direction, but still not sufficiently high.

“We think it is positive that attendance rates more than doubled in relocated schools as well as in schools returning to their original buildings,” Department spokeswoman Erin Hughes, said. “We think it’s important for all students to be back in the classroom though so we are looking into a number of ways that we can reach out to parents and students who may not be attending school and work on getting them back into the classroom.”

Another aspect of the school system is returning to normal this evening, city officials said: the city is closing the last of its school building shelters. Dozens of city schools served as shelters during the hurricane, and two remained open even after classes resumed last week.

As the school system continues to recover, its smaller-scale needs are beginning to receive heightened attention.

A number of charitable efforts are steering funds toward replacing basic school supplies that students and teachers might have lost during the storm. Last week, we reported that DonorsChoose had created a web page specifically dedicated to paying for projects from schools affected by the storm. So far it has raised $87,627 from 621 individual donors.

And today, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and the United Federation of Teachers jointly announced the creation of a new $1.5 million fund, made up mostly of corporate donations, that would specifically go toward buying and distributing 30,000 backpacks filled with school supplies and books to students in displaced schools.

The department has also helped the relocated schools replenish supplies.  Last week it raised the spending cap by $1,000 for 47 schools that were originally displaced. The schools used the money to pay for printing and buy pens, staplers, dry erase boards, markers, supplies that were either lost or left behind in their home schools.

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