The scoop

Shelby County to pull kids from schools shared with ASD

PHOTO: Mayor's Instagram account
Memphis Mayor A C Wharton speaks with students during a recent visit to Westwood Elementary School. Wharton is pressing for a compromise in a protracted dispute over school funding in Shelby County.

Shelby County Schools next fall will slam the brakes on its practice of sharing buildings with Achievement School District charter schools, pulling hundreds of students out of up to 10 schools that otherwise would be co-located with charters, Chalkbeat has learned.

District administrators say the move to end colocation is academically motivated. But it could also benefit the school district by slowing the steady exodus of students from SCS schools to the state-controlled ASD charters. It would also uproot several well-established school communities throughout Memphis and leave some school buildings with just a handful of charter school students in them.

Some ASD charter school operators take over low-performing schools a grade at a time. This practice, known as “phasing in,”allows charters to adjust their teaching model to local conditions as needed, and to share innovative strategies with traditional public school educators, according to charter leaders. Charter students at phase-in schools averaged 22 point gains in reading and 16 point gains in math, ASD officials said.

But colocation has led to morale, recruitment and retention problems among principals and teachers who work for traditional public schools, and who know their jobs will be phased out, said Brad Leon, the district’s chief innovation officer. This has hurt test scores in those schools, Leon said.

“We want our staff focused on student achievement,” Leon said. “We want them focused on the task at hand.”

Ending the colocation practice next year means a significant portion of students and teachers at Shannon, Westwood and Spring Hill elementary schools and Cory and Lester middle schools will be moved to other campuses.

If the ASD follows through with taking over Airways, A. Maceo Walker middle schools and Hawkins Mill, Brookmeade and Denver Elementary schools–all schools in which charter operators are considering phasing in at a grade at a time – students and teachers in the upper grades at those schools now will also be moved.

SCS administrators will present a proposal to board members at the next board meeting,  Nov. 18,detailing plans for those students.

ASD officials said they will not back away from its plans to phase-in charter schools, even if there will be no other students in the building.

“From the beginning, our goal has been to recruit, authorize, match, and hold accountable the best public charter operators locally and nationally,” said Elliot Smalley, the ASD’s chief of staff.  “They have different models, all of which are designed to get them to running whole schools—schools that serve all students—with success.”

The practice of colocation has  led to raucous debates across the country, where charter advocates have fought with traditional public school supporters over who pays the utility bills, how much space a school gets, and issues of overcrowding.

In Memphis, ASD charters and public schools sign a colocation agreement at the beginning of the year in which they decide which wings of the building belong to which school and who pays the school’s utility bills .

At Westwood Elementary, a building where Freedom Prep charter school took over kindergarten and first grades this fall, there have been a few colocation glitches. One occurred when SCS custodians turned off the air conditioner over the weekend while Freedom Prep teachers were working,  said Roblin Webb, the executive director and founder of Freedom Prep.

Overall,  though, the relationship has been cordial so far.

When Memphis Mayor A C Wharton came to the school this week to read to students at Westwood Elementary, their teachers invited Freedom Prep students to join the gathering.

“I told the principal at the beginning of the year, we’re both here for the same reason,” Webb said.  “We want to offer these kids the best education possible.”

Even with Shelby County administrators’ decision this week to end colocation, Webb said Freedom Prep doesn’t anticipate losing too many students.

YES Prep, a charter school based in Houston that hopes to take over the sixth grade classes at A. Maceo Walker, Airways and American Way middle schools next year, sees colocation as an opportunity for public and charter schools to work together, said Bill Durbin, who is leading Yes Prep’s expansion to Memphis.

In Texas, the charter has gained national attention for its collaboration with public schools. Yes Prep students and traditional public school students play for the same sports teams ,and teachers share best practices and sit through professional development training together.

“There are things public schools can learn from charter schools and there are things we can learn from them,” Durbin said.

Correction: This story originally left out Airways Middle School as a school which YES Prep hopes to take over.

 For more information on the takeover process, visit our interactive page here.

Tajuana Cheshier contributed to this story.  

Contact Daarel Burnette II at dburnette@chalkbeat.org or 901-260-3705.

Follow us on Twitter: @Daarel@chalkbeattn.

Like us on Facebook.

Sign up for our newsletter for regular updates on Tennessee education news.

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