policy pressure

As city acts on their cause, community school advocates carve out a new role

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Community school proponents rallied in front of education department headquarters Tuesday.

Armed with orange and blue balloons, a throng of parents and children converged on the education department headquarters this week chanting, “We want, we need, a community school policy.”

Within minutes, a top city official approached the crowd, borrowed an organizer’s bullhorn, and said the city had heard their demand: The policy was on its way.

Though it appeared spontaneous, the announcement had been carefully choreographed.

The rally’s organizers had told the city in advance about Tuesday’s event, which would center on their demand for the city to adopt a formal definition of a “community school,” something advocates had been calling for since December. The city could either unveil those guidelines at the event or explain to parents why none existed. Ahead of the rally, the organizers received word that Deputy Mayor Richard Buery would stop by the event to announce the guidelines.

“We support the mayor, we support this agenda, but we’re an advocacy group,” said Zakiyah Ansari, advocacy director of the Alliance for Quality Education, one of the groups at the rally.

Such is the intricate dance between advocates who for years fought for funding to fill schools with support services for students and their families, and an administration that has adopted that “community schools” approach as one of its central education initiatives.

For the advocates, the challenge is to back Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ambitious plan to transform nearly 130 schools into community schools, while also ensuring that those changes are made with public input and result in service-filled schools that outlive this mayoral administration. For de Blasio’s side, the trick is to move quickly enough that the public sees an immediate return on its expensive investment while ensuring the continued support of advocates.

The guidelines will become increasingly important as the administration promises to keep creating more of the schools — a plan attracting national attention — and as critics begin assessing their success.

“It’s very important that we are clear about what a community school is, what the standards of implementation are,” Buery told the receptive crowd. “We don’t want a situation where you are not engaging parents, you are not providing services, but you’re still calling it a community school.”

The guidelines that Buery announced Tuesday have not yet been publicly released, but they were sent to the city’s education oversight panel to vote on by the end of the year, a spokesman said. They will become education department guidelines, similar to those around social-media use and student grade promotion.

They are modeled on a framework produced by advocates that listed three core components of these schools — strong academics, support services, and parent participation — along with essential features like a full-time coordinator and dedicated space in the schools for partner organizations.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Deputy Mayor Richard Buery and Christopher Caruso, who heads the education department’s community schools office.

The guidelines get at a peculiar feature of community schools. Unlike a standardized math program, for instance, which should look similar in every classroom, the services and strategies in each community school should spring from the particular needs of local students and their families.

Therefore, Buery explained, the city’s guidelines are “mostly about being clear on the purpose and the strategy, more than a sort of checklist of what you’ll see in every building.”

They also will help address another challenge for the city: creating some consistency across the wide variety of schools using the community schools approach. This year, those include schools with attendance problems that applied for funding to become community schools; low-performing schools in the city’s “Renewal” turnaround program that were required to adopt the approach; and schools that have been using this approach for years without formal support from the city.

Still, community school proponents have concerns about the city’s efforts that are unlikely to be resolved by the brief guidelines.

Most prominently, they have repeatedly said that in addition to giving schools new services, the city must also aggressively address the schools’ academics. While the Renewal program includes an academic component, it is unclear how the city will make similar changes at the other community schools.

Christopher Caruso, who heads the education department’s new community schools office and also stopped by the rally, said that all city schools get academic support and that “strong instructional practices” are a key part of community schools. Other officials have said that community schools’ exciting extracurricular programs and support services will get more students showing up to class ready to learn, which is the first step toward academic gains.

But advocates insist that programs meant to improve student attendance and wellness must be paired with changes in the classroom.

“You can’t get kids to come to school if their classes suck,” said one advocate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid straining ties with the administration.

Even if the academics question remains unsettled, the new community schools are already seeing other early signs of progress, parents and educators said.

At Brooklyn Gardens Elementary School, which won one of the community school grants, students now have access to free glasses, dental screenings, and a food pantry, said Afton Vermeer, the school’s social work director. They have started to go on monthly field trips to hiking trails and apple orchards, and staffers have helped students’ families move from homeless shelters to permanent housing.

Vermeer, who works in the school through the nonprofit Partnership With Children, said she supports the community school approach because she has seen what happens when schools lack those services.

“I see kids who don’t have breakfast, or who don’t have stability at home, and don’t have any emotional stability,” she said, “and of course they don’t learn.”

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