transparency report

City has released only scarce data from early special ed reforms

A slide from a Department of Education presentation shows only limited information about the effects of the pilot of special education reforms.

Advocates for students with disabilities who have been defending the Department of Education’s special education reforms in the face of mounting criticism are coming to the end of their rope.

They have been calling on the city for years to integrate more students with special needs in mainstream classrooms and were cautiously optimistic in 2010 when the department launched a pilot aimed at doing just that.

But two years into the pilot, with the ambitious initiative set to scale citywide this fall, no one outside of the Department of Education has any solid idea how the initiative has worked so far. Even after extending the pilot for a year, the department has released scant information about what has happened to the schools and students involved in it.

“We’ve been asking for more information forever, essentially,” said Maggie Moroff, who heads the ARISE Coalition of special education advocates, which this week sent a letter of concern to top department officials.

Details have come out in dribs and drabs. One slideshow that department officials have presented shows that attendance and test scores for students with special needs in the pilot schools did not improve. The data points the department touts most often is that students in the pilot schools were referred to special education less frequently and moved into less restrictive environments more often than in comparable schools not participating in the pilot.

But those data points say only that schools did what they were asked to do: aim for placing fewer students in special education classes, for less time. When it comes to more complex and, according to advocates and special education experts, more meaningful data points, the department has been mum.

Has the move toward inclusion affected all kinds of students equally? the advocates have asked. Have suspensions of students with disabilities declined in the pilot schools? Are parents more satisfied with their children’s placements? How have teachers in the pilot schools been trained? What is the department learning about instruction for students with special needs? How has implementation varied from school to school?

So far, they have not gotten answers. The silence is one of the chief reasons that the ARISE Coalition formally informed the department this week of its concerns about schools’ readiness to handle new expectations about how they serve students with special needs. Among the requests in the letter is for a thorough and public review of the initiative’s first phase.

“There are certain questions that we have asked again and again and again,” Moroff said. “The members of the coalition are really concerned and they really need to have these questions answered.”

Moroff said multiple meetings with top department officials have given her confidence that the special education reforms were conceived with students’ best interests at heart. And she said the department has responded to some of the coalition’s suggestions, for example setting up an information hotline for parents of children who are turning five and entering the public school system for the first time.

But she said coalition members are growing increasingly alarmed that the next phase of the reforms is approaching and the department has not come forward with more substantive results.

Department officials say a detailed review of the pilot’s second year is underway and that a review of the first year’s results suggested that changes to how students with special needs are evaluated had resulted in students who might mistakenly have been classified as having a disability in the past not being placed in special education classes.

“We know that when students with disabilities have greater access to the general education curriculum and their non-disabled peers, they have a higher likelihood of succeeding academically,” said Deidrea Miller, a department spokeswoman, in a statement.

But some special education advocates say they suspect the department’s silence masks bad news.

“Knowing this administration, if they had something something good to report they would report it,” said Carmen Alvarez, the UFT’s vice president for special education. The UFT is one of the ARISE Coalition’s 45 members.

Alvarez said teachers are reporting widespread confusion about what they will be expected to do differently this fall as more students with special needs begin to enter their classes. Elizabeth Truly, another UFT official who works on special education issues, said the department would not even tell the union how many schools have sent teachers to special education training sessions at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

Members of the Citywide Council on Special Education, an elected parent group, are hearing similar concerns from families who have gotten mixed messages and, sometimes, incorrect messages from schools, according to member Lori Podvesker.

“So many of the teachers don’t know what’s going on,” Podvesker said. “There is lots of rhetoric out there that’s not correct because they’re not getting information from central.”

The advocacy community is torn about what to do about the department’s silence. On the one hand, advocates have long pushed the city to include students with disabilities more robustly in general education settings, and they are hesitant to derail that shift once it has begun. The elected parent council for Manhattan’s District 2 has alone formally asked the department to slow down the reforms until more information is available about their impact and schools’ readiness to move forward.

But advocates are also concerned that the department is rushing headlong into change and not examining whether the special education reforms could be implemented in a way that’s better for students with special needs.

“We’re worried that schools don’t get what’s expected of them and that they have not gotten the support they need — and that they are not going to get the ongoing support that they need,” Moroff said.

The City Council’s education committee is holding a hearing about the special education reforms June 12.

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