the tech cure

Gap App winners think they can solve low middle school scores

Winners of the Gap App Challenge pose with Chancellor Dennis Walcott at Tweed Courthouse on Tuesday morning.
Winners of the Gap App Challenge pose with Chancellor Dennis Walcott at Tweed Courthouse on Tuesday morning.

The city Department of Education thinks it has found software developers who are solving the perpetual problem of middle school math.

The department today announced four winners from its Gap App challenge — a competition inviting developers to submit programs that could help middle schools raise math scores, which remain stubbornly low. Developers submitted 200 apps to the challenge since it was first announced in January.

The developer of the “Best Instructional App,” KnowRe, has created an adaptive learning platform that offers Algebra 1 students different questions and challenges based on their previous answers.

In the “Best Administrative and Engagement App” category, top-rated developer Hapara has created an interface that lets teachers see their students’ work easily. “Our product is built exclusively on teacher and student feedback,” the group says in an informational video.

“There’s a lot of tools that have come and gone over the last decade that it felt like they didn’t talk to a teacher,” said Steve Kinney, a middle and high school programming teacher from Scholars Academy in Rockaway Park who served as one of the judges in the competition.

“This is the first time where it’s very explicit that we’re involving teachers in the process and we’re looking for apps that get back to the core of why anyone became a teacher, things that allow them to leverage technology, to work faster and more efficiently so they can focus their time on creating great lessons,” Kinney said.

Deputy Chancellor David Weiner said over the next two to three months, the department would work with schools in the Innovation Zone to pick which apps they want to implement. The iZone’s 250 schools, mostly middle and high schools that focus on personalized learning, will be able to pick from 164 apps of the 200 that met the contest qualifications.

How much the apps will cost to implement will depend on how many schools want to use the apps and which products they choose, Weiner said. But he said most of the apps are low cost and will only require schools to adapt existing technologies. Apps do not need to be used schoolwide and could just be used for certain subjects, classes, or teachers, Weiner said.

First-place winners each won $15,000 in cash, and second-place winners took home $5,000, prize money contributed by the Anthony Meyer Family Foundation. Each also received $6,000 in Amazon Web Service credits. The department also awarded honorable mentions in each categories.

The nine winning companies will demonstrate their apps live on Wednesday evening at the General Assembly at 902 Broadway.

Here’s a brief look at the winning companies and what they do.

Hapara (First place, Best Administrative and Engagement App)

Hapara, based in Palo Alto, Calif., optimizes Google Apps for schools by structuring Google Apps around classes and students.

LiveSchool (Second place, Best Administrative and Engagement App)

LiveSchool, based in Nashville, Tenn., allows teachers and administrators to record student behavior and manage numerous daily tasks, including attendance, participation, hallway monitoring, and assignment tracking.

KnowRe (First place, Best Instructional App)

KnowRe, based in New York City, assesses an individual’s strengths and weaknesses, personalizes a curriculum for each student’s focus areas adn engages students through game-like features, attractive graphics and social learning.

Mathalicious (Second place, Best Instructional App)

Mathalicious, based in Charlottesville, Va., helps creates lessons for educators that are aligned to Common Core standards through real-world topics and challenge students to think critically about the world.

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