Some teachers say their tenure approvals are being rescinded

Some teachers this week are getting bad news about what they thought was already a done deal: their tenure.

Teachers come up for tenure, which confers stronger job protections, after three years. In their third year, their principals recommend a tenure decision to the superintendent, who has the final say on whether to approve, deny, or defer tenure.

But some teachers whose principals had already received superintendent sign-off found out this week that those approvals had been rescinded, according to principals, teachers, and union officials. The teachers are instead being offered an extension of their probationary periods, some for the second time.

The scenario has played out at multiple schools, according to officials at the United Federation of Teachers, who said the schools all seemed to have low scores on their Department of Education progress reports.

The reversals appear to mark a new phase in the Bloomberg administration’s campaign to make tenure tougher to earn — or, as Mayor Bloomberg put it in a 2010 vow, “ending tenure as we know it.” Last year, the city aggressively cut down on the rate of tenure approvals, instead extending the probationary period of 40 percent of teachers up for tenure, up from 8 percent in 2010, and many principals said their superintendents had rejected some of their tenure recommendations.

At the time, Chancellor Dennis Walcott said the city aimed to make it harder still for teachers to earn tenure. “You’ll see the number probably go up again next year as far as those denied,” he said.

Neither teachers nor union officials reported an uptick in denials. But they said it seemed that most teachers up for tenure in struggling schools were being told that they would not get tenure this year, no matter what their principals or superintendents thought.

The first-year principal of Automotive High School, a low-performing school that is set to close at the end of the month and reopen as a new school with different staff, recommended that six teachers who were up for tenure receive it, according to a teacher at the school. In April, the high school superintendent responsible for approving the school’s tenure decisions, Karen Watts, signed off on three of the recommendations, ruling that the other three teachers should stay on probation for another year.

But on Monday, the three teachers who had been told Watts had approved their tenure learned that they too would have to spend another year proving themselves.

“What could have happened in a month to make the superintendent change her mind?” asked the teacher, whose tenure approval was rescinded. He asked to remain anonymous because he did not want to jeopardize his job prospects at Greenpoint High School for Engineering and Automotive Technology, the school that is set to replace Automotive, or in the future.

“They said the data wasn’t good,” said the teacher, referring to his students’ performance scores. “If it was really the data, why did she grant [tenure] to us in the first place?”

The teacher added that a teacher roster for Automotive proved that the Department of Education’s human resources system had already recognized him as having been taken off probation. The document, which was published on May 25, shows the teacher’s name as having “completed probation.”

Union officials said Automotive was not alone in seeing tenure decisions reversed and said they suspected the directive had come straight from the Department of Education’s top officials. UFT President Michael Mulgrew said he began getting calls from principals last Friday, telling him that superintendents said the decision was being made above their heads.

“When tenure decisions start getting made for the political needs of the mayor versus actual job evaluations of the people involved, then the school system is becoming a joke,” Mulgrew said.

Last summer, Walcott said data about the distribution of tenure decisions would show “a correlation” between low-performing schools and tenure denials and extensions.

Mulgrew warned that if that were the case, the city could be breaking state labor laws that bar individual tenure denials based on how a school performs overall.

“The law is very clear on this,” he said. “Tenure is based on the individual job performance. It’s not based on the performance of the school where they work.”

Sources said that tenure decisions was being deferred in other schools that the city has identified as low-performing. At John Dewey High School, where a new principal started in the middle of the year, all six teachers up for tenure were denied. At Herbert Lehman High School, the only teachers who received tenure this year had already had their probationary period extended before, according to a teacher there. Both schools are, like Automotive, set to undergo the overhaul process known as “turnaround.”

“I dont think anyone really truly expected to get tenure in this school under these circumstances, but they were hoping they were wrong,” said a teacher at Dewey.

A spokesman for the Department of Education denied that any campaign was underway to reverse tenure recommendations in certain schools and said final decisions on tenure “are based on a careful review of the teacher’s performance, in consultation with the principal.”

The spokesman added, “If the union, principals, or teachers have specific concerns, we will look into them — but no concerns have been shared so far.”

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