closing season

At Irving, closure protest focuses on students who don’t attend

Supporters of Washington Irving High School protested the school's planned closure this morning.

It was still dark this morning when Steve Morris rolled up in front of Washington Irving High School on his bike.

Morris had been the school’s librarian until last summer, when the struggling school cut him from its staff roster and shuttered the library. Now he was on his way to the Brandeis High School building as a member of the Absent Teacher Reserve, the pool of position-less teachers who are shuffled to a different school each week.

But first he wanted to offer silent support to his former students and colleagues who, along with parents and union officials, had filled Irving’s front steps to protest the Department of Education’s plan to close the school.

“I’ll be the last librarian this school ever has,” Morris told me wistfully before pedaling north on Irving Place.

Irving is one of 25 schools the city has proposed closing or shrinking this year. The century-old high school near Union Square got an F on its most recent progress report, down from C’s in the previous two years.

In a series of spirited chats and statements, the protesters argued that the deck had long been stacked against the school.

They said longstanding academic weaknesses and spurts of violence had been exacerbated as the Bloomberg administration closed other schools and directed needy students to Irving. Then, in 2008, the city spun off Irving’s performing arts program, which teachers said enrolled the school’s highest-performing students, into its own school, Gramercy Arts. Overnight, Irving went from more than 2,400 students to less than 1,700. Since then, enrollment has dropped steadily, taking with it valuable dollars and staff.

Bloomberg “says he wants to open doors, but he’s closing Irving floor by floor,” UFT chapter leader Greg Lundahl led the protesters in chanting. They said the school needs time to adjust to its new reality — and more resources to serve its needy students.

The school received federal “transformation” funds this year but will see those funds directed to new schools in the building if the DOE’s closure plan is approved.

City officials cited the school’s low 4-year graduation rate — 48.2 percent last year and less than 55 percent for the last decade — when announcing their decision to seek closure. They also signaled that they were concerned the school’s leadership would not be able to pull off the turnaround.

But teachers said if the school were evaluated on the basis of students who actually attend, Irving would post a graduation rate higher than the city average.

Marian Burnbaum, a social studies teacher who heads Irving’s School Leadership Team, said there about 100 students enrolled who have never attended and cannot be tracked down. It’s because of the “long-term absences,” she said, that the school’s average daily attendance rate is a paltry 73.8 percent — well below the average high school attendance of 86 percent. That data point pushed the school out of D range.

Burnbaum said she is urging the UFT to seek legislation that would make it easier for schools to track down missing students.

Other teachers said they had taken a more local, faster-acting approach to helping students. They said they worked diligently to serve the students who do come to school, who include many English language learners and students with special needs who travel from other boroughs to attend Irving.

“There isn’t a harder-working staff in the city,” Lundahl told me.

Pearl Dixon, a physical education teacher who graduated from Irving in 1987, told me teachers had analyzed student data and practiced with a new teacher evaluation model, both activities the city has urged.

“Every policy the DOE has put to us, we have worked on,” she said. “We inherited a lot of problems, and there are things we need to work on. …. But [Bloomberg] needs to give us more time.”

Sharon Talbot, an Upper West Side resident, said her son Robert is flourishing as a sophomore in Washington Irving’s special education program after graduating from the Computer School. Talbot is white, unlike the vast majority of Irving students.

“At first I was uneasy,” she told me about her son’s assignment to the school. “But then I saw what was happening here. … What we need is more of what the school already has.”

“I pray to God that this school does not keep cutting back, that the library will reopen,” said Michael de la Cruz during the rally. His son Robert is a sophomore.

As for the library, students say it’s now closed except when teachers bring their classes. Most of the time, books sit behind locked doors and students must spend their lunch periods in the chaotic cafeteria instead of studying, according to Dayla Diaz, a senior.

This morning, Diaz was hanging out in front of the Pure Loyalty cell-phone storage truck across the street, where students drop of their cell phones for $1 a day before passing through the metal detectors at Washington Irving. She said she makes the long trip from the Bronx each day in large part because of the teachers.

“I like the teachers better than most of the students, to be honest,” she said. “You can actually sit down and talk to a teacher, and they’ll try to help you.”

During the rally, which disbanded as the first bell approached this morning, union officials vowed vigorous protests against all of the planned closures, including at schools, such as Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing Arts, that the city has proposed only slimming, not closing down.

“We will not stand aside,” said UFT Vice President Leo Casey. “We will be every place this mayor decides he’s going to close down 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 [email protected]

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