comings and goings

HVA charter high school's high-profile principal resigns abruptly

photo (3)The high-profile principal hired to turn around a struggling charter high school has resigned abruptly, just months into the school year.

Jason Griffiths, who left one of the city’s most selective high schools to take over at Harlem Village Academy High School over the summer, is no longer at the charter school, according to a letter sent to families on Tuesday. The school’s academic dean, who came to HVA with Griffiths from Brooklyn Latin School, will take over for now.

Griffiths resigned because of “personal reasons related to his family and his health,” according to the letter sent to families. Griffiths, who became a father this summer, did not respond to requests for comment. The school also did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Hiring Griffiths was a coup for the school, which boasts some impressive student achievement data and its own East Harlem building but has struggled to maintain enrollment, retain teachers, and keep discipline under control.

Its previous principal, Laurie Warner, resigned in February and the school operated without a leader until Griffiths came on over the summer. An HVA official said earlier this year that she left for personal reasons.

Now, Griffiths’ resignation is a blow that comes at a time when Harlem Village Academies, the network that operates the high school, needs to prove that its struggles are in the past. The network announced this fall that it aspires to open a graduate school to train teachers.

Parents and students outside the school on Wednesday said the latest departure is unsettling.

“This is the second principal that’s left in a year — we’re in limbo,” said Leslie Betancourt, the mother of a sophomore daughter and a son in eighth grade at an HVA middle school. “I feel like the foundation is falling apart.”

Betancourt said several teachers left at the end of the last school year — around the time the previous principal also left. Students said some of the teachers told them they had been asked to leave. The school, including founder and CEO Deborah Kenny, has not fully explained the turnover to parents, Betancourt said, adding that emails she sent to Kenny had not been answered.

“There’s something going on in the school system [HVA] that they’re not telling us,” Betancourt said. “We expect honesty. What we see and hear going on is different from what they’re telling us.”

Multiple students said changes had been made under Griffiths but that order had not yet set in.

“It’s hectic. Theres’s no order. They lose control because there’s not one person making decisions” due to the principal turnover, said a sophomore whose parent asked that the student’s name be withheld. “Teachers get frantic.”

The sophomore and another student said that, under Griffiths, the school had ended a demerit system that former teachers said had until recently been the school’s primary — and excessively punitive — approach to student discipline. But they said the system changes and the departure of several teachers had made this year feel less stable than last.

“I feel like last year was way better,” the sophomore said. Of Griffiths, he added, “I feel like he was struggling to cope with us.”

Griffiths told DNAInfo over the summer that he was attracted to HVA because of its small size and liberal arts focus, which make it similar in some ways to Brooklyn Latin. He also planned to add the prestigious International Baccalaureate program, which Brooklyn Latin offers, at HVA.

But the two schools are also very different. At HVA, high school students were originally admitted to the network’s two middle schools in fifth grade by lottery, many with significant academic ground to make up. Brooklyn Latin, on the other hand, accepts students based on their scores on a citywide exam required to be eligible for ultra-selective specialized high schools. While Brooklyn Latin, which is in Williamsburg, is the least selective of the specialized schools, its students are among the city’s highest-achieving and most driven.

“I know this is going to be a lot of work but I’ll have a lot more control,” Griffiths told DNAInfo. “And if we have failures we’ll have the opportunity to fix them or they’ll be my fault.”

Students on their way into classes today said they thought recent changes would allow the school to function even in Griffiths absence. And one said the school’s track record of frequent turnover had prepared it to weather the latest departure.

“We didn’t have a principal last year,” said Alana, a junior who declined to share her last name. “Now he left — it won’t change anything.”

The school’s complete letter to families is below:

Dear Families,

We are writing to share with you that Jason Griffiths has resigned as Principal of HVA High and that effective immediately our Academic Dean, Cari Winterich, is the interim school leader, focusing primarily on the academic program.  Ms. Winterich has been leading our teachers this year and we anticipate a smooth transition.

Mr. Griffiths informed us that he made the decision to resign for personal reasons related to his family and his health.   As has been the case during Mr. Griffith’s leave of absence over the last month, Ms. Winterich, along with the faculty and staff, will continue to serve the needs of our students and families.

This news is difficult for all of us in the HVAH community.   We have shared this information with your child today and have provided a forum with teachers and counselors to support students who need time and space to process the announcement.  If you have any questions, we invite parents of 9th and 11th grade students to call Abena Koomson at 646—— and parents of 10th and 12th grade students to call Aria Gee at 347–—–. We encourage you to contact us, and we will reach out as soon as possible.

Most importantly, the HVA High team remains committed to our students. We care deeply about the well-being, academic achievement, and personal growth of every student.  To this end we will continue to focus on academic rigor, authentic assessment, and our transition to the International Baccalaureate Programme.  We will continue to strengthen our culture and to work hard to help students cultivate the independence they will need for success in college and beyond.

Thank you for your support and partnership.

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