The city will try to close a low-performing school, Fahari, after all

Fahari Academy

Chancellor Dennis Walcott gave an incomplete answer when he said earlier this month that the city would not close any schools this year.

In fact, the Department of Education has moved to shutter one school — a charter school that it put on probation last year amid concerns that included sky-high teacher and student attrition.

The school, Fahari Academy Charter School, posted the lowest marks of all middle schools on the city progress reports released last week. The department told the school’s board last week that it would recommend Fahari’s closure.

Under charter law, the state Board of Regents must revoke Fahari’s charter, after which the it no longer has the legal right to operate. Since the school’s charter expires in the middle of the school year — next month — the city is hoping to get state approval to wait until June to shutter the school.

The city failed to get the proposal onto the agenda for this week’s Regents meeting in Albany, so that leaves December as the last chance for the city to get final approval before Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, who opposes school closures, takes over at the Department of Education.

In the meantime, officials at the school say they plan to fight back, if necessary in court, a process that has fared well for charter schools targeted for closure by the city in the past.

“We believe they overlooked some pretty critical information and we intend on making sure our record and complete story is presented to all stakeholders and decision makers for consideration,” said Elizabeth Lenig, vice chair of Fahari’s board.

Lenig said the city’s charter school office first informed Fahari’s board that the school would receive a “non-renewal” recommendation on Wednesday, the day progress reports were released.

The charter school office posted a report rationalizing its decision as well, factoring Fahari’s “F” grade on its 2012-2013 progress report heavily into the recommendation. The report pointed out that while test scores dropped significantly for all students in the Brooklyn district where Fahari resides, they fell more dramatically at Fahari.

Just 7 percent of students passed the state’s English tests last year, down from 40 percent in 2012. Ten percent passed in math, down from 60 percent in 2012.

Fahari struggled almost from the moment it opened its doors in 2009. Former teachers and administrators attributed the difficulty to an overly harsh student disciplinary system and a difficult work culture established by its founder, who left at the end of the 2011-2012 school year. When Fahari was put on probation in August of 2012, city officials said the school had to retain more students, after more than 100 left in the span of two school years, and cut down on the 91 out-of-school student suspensions that were issued in 2011-2012.

Dirk Tillotson, a former interim executive director brought in to engineer a turnaround for the school last year, said the school had addressed both issues. Just 4.4 percent of students didn’t return to Fahari this year, an attrition rate that is down from 37 percent in 2011 and 27 percent in 2012. Tillotson added that Fahari’s suspension rates fell from 42 percent to 16 percent last year.

“I don’t feel like the school is being treated fairly in this process,” said Tillotson, who resigned from his position after a new principal was hired in May.

Lenig said the board also objects to making high-stakes decisions based on last year’s test score results, which were based on tougher tests that are part of the state’s transition to the Common Core standards.

City officials have said they won’t use results from the 2012-2013 progress reports to close any schools, though that is more because of the small window of time they have to hold a required public comment period before the end of the year. They have always emphasized that the progress reports would be controlled for changes in the state tests by measuring each school’s performance in comparison to other schools.

Lenig said the school plans “to fight this recommendation with every tool available to us.” The school will also have the United Federation of Teachers, which has represented teachers at the school since 2011, as a partner in the battle.

There is good precedent that Fahari could stay open if it challenges the department’s decision in court. Two charter schools that the city tried to close last year, Peninsula Preparatory Academy and Williamsburg Charter High School, stayed open after they took the city to court, arguing that the city did not have a clear process to close struggling charter schools. Both schools received A grades on this year’s city progress reports.

The Board of Regents declined to take up Fahari’s recommendation this month, a city Department of Education official told the Fahari board in an email on Friday night. “We anticipate that the items will be on the December agenda,” the official wrote.

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.