back in the saddle

Santiago Taveras, a former DOE official, returning as a principal

Santiago Taveras will be the new principal of DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. (Photo courtesy of Facebook)
Santiago Taveras, a former deputy chancellor, will be the principal of DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. (Photo courtesy of Facebook)

All it took was one interview question for Santiago Taveras to realize he wanted to be a principal again.

Taveras, a former Department of Education deputy chancellor, will be the new principal of the struggling DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx this fall.

The position marks a reversal of the trajectory Taveras’s career has taken up to now. After starting his career as a city teacher, Taveras headed several schools before landing a position in the Department of Education’s central administration. He was the deputy chancellor for teaching and learning until the department dissolved that division, then served as the city’s first and only community engagement czar.

Taveras left the department at a time of turmoil in April 2011, just days before Cathie Black’s brief tenure as chancellor ended. He became a vice president at Cambridge Education, the consulting firm that conducted the first quality reviews in New York City schools, which Taveras oversaw while at the department.

But in recent months, Taveras said he wanted to work directly with students again, so he interviewed for a schools superintendent job in New Jersey.

During the interview, he was asked to describe the most gratifying work he had done in his career. Taveras talked about a group of 10 students he mentored when he was a teacher at Central Park East Secondary School in East Harlem.

“Those 10 boys taught me more about life, about the struggles of young men, than I had ever learned from my two master’s and bachelor’s degrees,” he said. “I started getting emotional during the interview, and I was thinking to myself, ‘What am I doing trying to be the superintendent of a school district when I know for a fact what I want to do is be closer to students?'”

Taveras called his old colleagues at the Department of Education and asked what he needed to do to become a principal again. He said Chancellor Dennis Walcott was kind enough to “grandfather” him into the principal pool, and a week later Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky offered him the job at DeWitt Clinton.

Taveras said he knows there’s a lot of work to be done at the high school, which was considered for closure this past year due to dismal progress reports and is now set to shrink substantially while also sharing space for the first time. He has spent the last couple of days at the school listening to teachers’ and students’ concerns and so far has three main priorities for the improvements he wants to make.

First, he said he wants to build up the school’s technology infrastructure. He also wants to set up professional learning teams to help teachers better understand the new teacher evaluation system and how to align their instruction with the Common Core learning standards. Taveras also wants to rebuild school morale to counteract the negative reputation that many have of DeWitt Clinton today.

Taveras has experience closing schools, after heading South Bronx High School after the city decided to phase it out in 2001. And he has even more experience opening new schools: He was the founding assistant principal of East Side Community High School, and the founding principal of both Banana Kelly High School and the Urban Assembly Academy for Careers in Sports.

But taking over a school with a long and storied past and trying to turn it around after a period of decline so that it becomes a school that students want to attend will be a new challenge.

“You have to come in and get them to buy into your vision,” Taveras said about the staff.When he spoke with teachers on Friday, he said he kept repeating the importance of everyone working as a team otherwise they will not be successful at turning the school around.

“Teachers came up to me afterward and said, ‘I’m on that team, I’m ready to work with you to get this done,'” he said. “That was inspiring… It was something that I was not expecting because of course, I’m somebody new who they don’t know… but I can see there’s an urgency to turn the school around.”

He said he thinks his experience at Tweed taught him that with every decision there are always advantages, disadvantages, and different stakeholders to consider, but at the end of the day, the choice has to benefit the children.

“I don’t think anybody has gone from deputy chancellor back to kids,” Taveras said. “It shows, I believe, one of the reasons I was welcome at Clinton on Friday is that they understand this isn’t about media, this isn’t about anything else other than doing something I’m happy to do, building community, turning schools around, and making people feel empowered about the work they’re doing to teach children.”

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