making it work

Red Hook principals scramble to find space for damaged school

Teachers from the Red Hook Neighborhood School meet in the school's library during an Election Day professional development session.

Principal Rochel Brown hadn’t slept much since Friday, when she and her teachers began assessing the toll Hurricane Sandy took on the Red Hook Neighborhood School’s community.

The news she received then was grim: Several teachers lost their homes and cars in the storm, which was particularly devastating to Staten Island and Brooklyn’s waterfront neighborhoods, where many teachers from her school live. And many more families were unreachable because of power outages in the area.

To top it off, she and Shahara Jackson, principal of the Summit Academy Charter School, which shares the Huntington Avenue school building with the Neighborhood School, learned they would need to make room for another school—P.S. 15, a Red Hook school so damaged by the storm that it cannot reopen yet—by Wednesday, when its students and teachers will be temporarily relocated.

Brown told reporters this afternoon that she is managing “as smoothly as possible,” given the circumstances. The other principals nodded in agreement.

“Once we went through the planning phase, we met as a building council and determined where [P.S. 15’s] students are going to be going and which clasrooms we would need to make readily available in a very short turnaround time,” Brown said. “We want them to feel as ‘normal’ as they can possibly feel, entering a new building in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.”

To make it work, Brown said she has adjusted everyone’s schedules and temporarily forfeited the use of speciality classrooms like art and music. Instead of sending students from classroom to classroom for their non-core subjects, on Wednesday the teachers will travel between classrooms to hold lessons. Some classes may also be consolidated, meaning class size will temporarily double.

Brown and Jackson said the lost week of classes will be tough to recover from, but they have been trudging forward.

“Our teachers were able to post assignments to Jupiter Grades for our scholars to access so they could have a seamless transition once they return,” said Jackson, whose students are in grades six through 12. “We have an advisory system so all of our teachers are responsible for nine to ten scholars, and they were able to contact them and remain in touch with them to make sure they were reading over the break.”

“Losing a week is always detrimental to children,” Brown added. “As you know we’re implementing the New York State Common Core Standards, and we don’t want to lose on that. We’re implementing professional development today with our staff.”

And the state exams, she said, “are never the last things on our minds.”

Some of the 43 schools relocating tomorrow lack basic classroom supplies, but Peggy Wyns-Madison, the principal of P.S. 15, said moving trucks delivered supplies from her old school to the new one this morning, so she will not have to make do without.

“Every classroom is stocked with resources from our math curriculum, reading curriculum, writing curriculum, so it’s going to feel as close to possible to the new normal,” she said. “We’re happy we were able to get those resources into the building today.”

After a visit from schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott, the principals walked reporters through the school’s pristine computer lab and library, which would likely  serve as make-shift classrooms for multiple classes at once tomorrow.

Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky told reporters in a phone call later that day that he is satisfied with the effort principals like Jackson and Brown have made to accommodate new colleagues who have been displaced.

“The schools that are hosting are being incredibly generous. They are going out of their way to make the resources they have available,” he said. But those resources, he added, “do not always match up with what’s needed.”

Wyns-Madison said she is grateful to be at the Neighborhood School, noting that many families were uprooted by the hurricane and would welcome the stability it offers, even though it isn’t their usual location. The two schools are about half a mile apart.

“Safety is always a major concern for us, so the most important thing was to think about the families and the type of conditions they were under, to make sure we didn’t add to the issues that they were wrestling with,” she said.  “We wanted to make sure they would attend a school that was within hopefully walking distance.”

Wyns-Madison said she still has not been able to reach all of her families, many of whom last power or cell phone service, but met with some in person today as they arrived at the school, which is a polling site, to vote.

The Department of Education posted a document on its website outlining ways teachers can address the outsized challenges students may be facing, and how to incorporate news about the hurricane into their lessons tomorrow.

Walcott’s advice to teachers was to help students who may have been traumatized by the hurricane think about their experience in a broader context. And all the better, he said, if hurricane lessons are aligned to the Common Core, the state’s new and high-stakes curriculum standards.

“They can talk about the students experiences, they can either share their own experiences, they can talk about the schools’ experiences and use that as a proxy of what happened last week,” he said. “Especially if it fits into the Common Core, and really having the students express themselves and talk about it.”

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