Fresh faces

Ken Wagner, top state ed deputy, a finalist for Rhode Island ed chief job

Yvvonne Burrell and Sir Martin look at scholarship information in the Future Center during a school day at Manual High School on Tuesday, May 10, 2011. The Future Center provides the students a place to receive information about financial aid, scholarships and colleges. The graduating seniors at the school are all required to apply and be accepted to some form of post high school educational facility. AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post

Ken Wagner, a former school psychologist and principal who has ascended the ranks of the State Education Department in recent years, is a final candidate to become Rhode Island’s next state education commissioner, sources say.

Wagner has effectively helmed the department alongside acting Commissioner Elizabeth Berlin over the first half of 2015 after John King’s departure last year. Wagner would be the latest in a string of state education officials to leave over the last year, which has been marked by tumult over education policies and the end of the state’s Race to the Top funding, as well as the choice of new Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, who started Monday.

Wagner, who did not respond to a request for comment, joined the department as its data director in 2009 and was soon promoted to assistant commissioner by then-Commissioner David Steiner, according to his LinkedIn page. His oversight quickly expanded to include assessments, curriculum, and education technology before being promoted to senior deputy commissioner in January after King stepped down.

Though Wagner wasn’t the acting commissioner, he became the face of the department in recent months, moderating the high-profile summit that brought researchers to Albany to discuss changes to teacher evaluations. Some within the department saw Wagner as the top internal candidate to replace King.

“Ken has credentials to be in any number of jobs so I’m not overly surprised,” said Regent Roger Tilles, when told of Wagner’s candidacy. “I’m disappointed. I think he’s done a good job.”

The transition would leave Elia with more room to choose her top leaders. But it also highlights a challenge for the state education department: how to hold onto personnel and institutional knowledge as it loses money and influence in the post-Race to the Top era.

In 2010, New York was awarded nearly $700 million through the federal Race to the Top program, which spurred states to overhaul education policies. That money was used to help districts implement new teacher evaluation systems and the Common Core learning standards and to devise new state tests, among other changes.

That federal funding effectively ran out last month. Among Elia’s most immediate decisions will be which programs should continue at the department, which last year had 45 Race to the Top-funded staff positions. The privately funded Regents Research Fund, which employed temporary staff members as consultants on the Race to the Top initiatives, has also been dismantled.

Other officials who have left or are planning to leave include Bill Clark, who left the state’s charter school office last month to become executive director of the education organization School Turnaround; assistant commissioner Julia Rafal-Baer, who announced her plans to leave at last month’s Board of Regents meeting; and Ken Slentz and Cosimo Tangorra, Jr., both deputy commissioners who have left in the past year.

“In every transition there are shifts in staffing, and I would expect this administration will not be different,” Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said. “It’s just logical.”

Tisch declined to comment on Wagner’s job prospects.

“One of the great things about working together with people is that when they leave you is that they get promoted, so I wouldn’t be unhappy if that was the case,” Tisch said when asked about the Rhode Island education chief position. “He deserves every good thing that is coming to him.”

The Ocean State has just 300 public schools, but it has played host to some high-profile education debates, especially after the 2010 mass firing and re-hiring of teachers in Central Falls. Its last education commissioner, Deborah Gist, introduced new teacher evaluations and changed the state’s school funding formula. Gist’s contract officially ended on July 1, although she announced her departure in the winter and is now leading Tulsa, Oklahoma’s school system.

The Rhode Island appointment is controlled by the governor, although a board of education has to formally sign off. The board, called the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education, is next scheduled to meet on July 13. A spokeswoman for Gov. Gina Raimondo office did not respond to requests for comment.

Raimondo won last year’s Democratic primary and the general election without the backing of the state teachers union, which remained upset about pension cuts she spearheaded as Rhode Island’s treasurer. One of her first moves as governor was to name Stefan Pryor, a founder of the Achievement First network of charter schools and the former Connecticut education commissioner, to lead the state’s economic development efforts.

Wagner was not the only leader with New York credentials considered for the Rhode Island job. Jean-Claude Brizard, a former deputy chancellor at the city’s education department and the former head of Chicago and Rochester’s schools, said in an email that he had interviewed earlier this year but was “no longer in the mix.”

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

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.