No Late Arrivals

To stabilize two struggling schools, city will not send them new students mid-year

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

The city will not send any latecomer students, who often pose extra challenges, to at least two long-struggling high schools this year, officials said. The shift marks an acknowledgement that some schools have been overburdened by students who arrive mid-year, and suggests that the city will consider adjusting enrollment policies as it tries to prop up troubled schools.

Late enrollees are often assigned to struggling schools with many unfilled (and often unwanted) seats, which can hasten a school’s decline as it strains to meet the needs of students who may have just arrived in the country or been released from jail.

The city has acknowledged the problem before and taken steps to direct fewer of these late arrivals — known as “over-the-counter” students — to low-performing schools. But observers said they had not heard of a complete freeze on latecomer placements at particular schools before.

The new strategy makes sense, advocates said, but they questioned how widely it could be implemented since latecomers have to be assigned somewhere.

“Clearly, you shouldn’t send over-the-counter students to struggling schools,” since it can derail both the student and the school, said Norm Fruchter, a senior policy analyst at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform. “But the question for the Department of Education is, systematically, where are you going to put these kids?”

Enrollment officers will not send students who enter the system after the normal high-school admissions process to two Brooklyn high schools this year, Boys and Girls and Automotive, according to city and state officials.

The city was forced to take drastic steps to improve those schools because they meet the state’s definition of “out of time” — they have been low-performing for several years without making progress and have failed to enact turnaround plans.

The city has also started to intervene at other struggling schools, including with the quiet rollout last month of an intensive coaching and oversight program for about two-dozen schools. But some principals of low-performing schools have said they have heard little from the city about how it plans to support them, whether by enrollment changes or other means.

There has long been concern that troubled schools wind up with more over-the-counter students than other schools, and that this can send those struggling schools over the edge.

For instance, about 20 percent of the students at large struggling high schools in 2011 were sent there outside of the normal enrollment process, compared to just 12 percent at better-performing schools, according to an Annenberg report last year. One large closing high school had 37 percent over-the-counter students in 2011, compared to the citywide average of 16 percent, the report found.

About 36,000 students per year do not go through the high-school admissions process but still need a seat, according to the Annenberg report. Students have different reasons for missing the enrollment process, but many of these latecomers are recent immigrants, have been previously incarcerated, or are homeless. Such students place high demands on any school, but especially ones that are already floundering.

State officials have warned the city about enrollment policies that saddle low-performing schools with disproportionate numbers of high-needs students, including those with disabilities, ones who are below grade level, and English language learners.

“I worry about the over-concentration of high-needs students in particular buildings without adequate supports to ensure success,” State Education Commissioner John King said in 2012.

Bernard Gassaway, the principal of Boys and Girls High School, said that the over-the-counter freeze could drive down his enrollment even further.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Bernard Gassaway, the principal of Boys and Girls High School, said that the over-the-counter freeze could drive down his enrollment even further.

To address the issue, the state required districts applying for federal school-improvement grants to show how they avoid clustering high-needs students in certain schools. In turn, the city began what it called “over-the-counter reform,” requiring every school to take more latecomers so that they are more evenly spread throughout the system.

But it is unclear if the city has ever spared a particular school from taking any late enrollees as a way to lessen its burden and help it improve. The Annenberg report recommended that as an improvement strategy for struggling schools, but Fruchter said he had never heard of it being done until now.

A city education department spokeswoman would not say whether this strategy had been used before or whether it would be applied to other schools. She only said it is intended as a “supportive intervention” for these two schools for this school year.

Even though advocates have called for an end to overburdening schools with high-needs students, they questioned how this sort of out-the-counter moratorium would work.

“I think it’s a great idea, but I don’t know where all these kids are going to go,” said Mary Conway-Spiegel, an advocate who has worked with closing schools.

She noted that higher-performing schools tend to get more applicants and so have fewer seats available for students who arrive after the regular admissions process. Some of those schools also try to limit the number of over-the-counter students they receive, she added.

The only citywide solution to this problem is to set up a “controlled-choice” admissions system, said Fruchter, who is an appointed member of the Panel for Educational Policy, a citywide school policymaking group. Students would still choose where to apply, but every high school would have to reserve a certain share of its seats for different student groups, such as over-the-counter students and those still learning English, he said.

A potential problem with this over-the-counter freeze is that it could drive down enrollment at already under-enrolled struggling schools, whose budgets are tied to their number of students. Bernard Gassaway, the principal of Boys and Girls High School, raised that concern in a letter to the schools chancellor, calling the plan “tantamount to phasing out BGHS.”

But the moratorium should actually help the schools, said Geraldine Maione, a former principal who helped turn around William Grady Career & Technical High School in Brooklyn. It will free the school leaders from having to devote attention to late-arriving students, she said, so they can focus on revamping their schools.

“Let’s see what happens,” she said. “Now that they’ll have more time and resources, that will be the test.”

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