Tisch Talk

Top state education official criticizes city’s school networks

During a panel discussion Monday, Merryl Tisch said that "networks have basically failed children" who are English-language learners or who have special needs.
During a panel discussion Monday, Merryl Tisch said that “networks have basically failed children” who are English-language learners or who have special needs.

The next mayor should “reconsider” the current system of school-support networks, State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said Monday, adding her voice to a chorus of critics – including mayoral frontrunner Bill de Blasio – who have questioned the signature Bloomberg education policy.

“Me, if I were going to take over the school system, I would look heavily to change the networks,” Tisch said during a panel discussion hosted by the nonprofit group, PENCIL.

“I think the networks have basically failed children who are [English-language learners],” added Tisch, who is due to defend the state’s education policies at a state senate hearing Tuesday. “They have failed children who have special needs.”

Under the $90 million network system, principals choose from about 55 Department of Education or nonprofit-run support providers, which assist schools with teacher training, budgeting and more.

The networks emerged as part of a major school-system overhaul under Mayor Michael Bloomberg that shifted power from district superintendents to individual principals, who became more accountable for student performance.

Proponents argue that the network system enables principals to partner with like-minded leaders, regardless of geography, in the process eliminating the patronage system that thrived when superintendents held sway.

But critics charge that some networks do little to aid their member schools, while separating schools from their communities and cutting locals out of the decision-making.

Earlier this year, de Blaiso, the Democratic mayoral candidate who enjoys a commanding lead in the polls, said he was “dubious about whether this current network structure can be kept,” adding later that parents need “to be able to talk to someone at the district level.”

The Republican candidate, Joe Lhota, has not commented publicly on the issue. His campaign staff did not respond to a request for his position Monday.

During the panel talk and in a follow-up interview, Tisch praised much of Bloomberg’s education agenda, such as his support of charter schools, and urged the incoming mayor to “choose from the wonderful smorgasbord of things this administration has done.”

But she singled out the networks as a policy with a mixed track record, saying they had been “hit or miss” in boosting schools, leaving some principals feeling “very lonely and abandoned in their work” – particularly the work of educating students with special needs.

She added that she had yet to find a small-sized support provider that could adequately serve every school in a network spread over multiple boroughs.

“Networks needs to be reconsidered – how they work and how they’re managed,” Tisch said in the interview.

Eric Nadelstern, a former deputy schools chancellor who led the design of the networks, forcefully defended the system in an interview, saying it was at the “center of the reforms” under Bloomberg that raised the graduation rate by 30 percent.

“It’s wonderful that people in authority offer opinions that aren’t aligned with the data,” he quipped when told of Tisch’s comments.

Nadelstern said the networks stamped out the corruption of the district system – where politicians would dole out jobs and school seats as gifts – while also slashing costs, since each network employs about 15 people, compared to some 120 staffers in the old district offices, he said.

He also argued that networks allow educators to collaborate across economic lines and that network staff visit schools much more often than superintendents’ staffs did.

The education department also considers the networks a major advancement over the old districts, even going so far as to hire a consulting firm this year to devise ways to keep the system in tact under the next administration.

Erin Hughes, a department spokeswoman, said Monday that networks “replaced a corrupt, patronage-ridden district structure with teams of professional educators, and turning back the clock would be an injustice to our principals, teachers and students.”

She also said the department added nearly 70 new network coaches and supervisors in the past couple years to aid schools during the special-education overhaul.

Tisch did not recommend specific changes to the network system, but another panelist did.

Ernest Logan, president of the city principals union, said that oversight of schools’ budgets and personnel should be returned from networks to superintendents, which would provide clarity to principals.

“People need a boss,” he said.

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