All together now

P.S. 133′s innovative admissions model aims for more diversity

Heather Foster-Mann talks to students and parents at P.S. 133.
Principal Heather Foster-Mann talks to students and parents at P.S. 133.

One day after the country honored the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, city officials cut the ribbon on a school building in Brooklyn constructed to advance a new model for school integration.

P.S. 133 in Park Slope opened the doors of its $66 million building this morning to an eager and enthusiastic group of parents and students. Along with the 45 classrooms, shiny gymnasium, and an auditorium that incorporates the school’s historic facade, P.S. 133 also got a brand-new admissions policy.

Instead of drawing students from its old zone in District 13, the school accepts students from across all of District 13 and adjoining District 15. A third of seats are earmarked for students from District 13, and 30 percent of kindergarten seats are reserved for English language learners and children who quality for free or reduced-price lunch.

It’s the first time the Bloomberg administration has engineered a specific mix of students based on socioeconomic status and English proficiency. The admissions process also marks a collaboration between two districts with markedly different demographics.

“We wanted to make sure if you couldn’t afford to live in expensive homes in Park Slope, it didn’t matter,” said Principal Heather Foster-Mann. “If you live on the other side of District 15 or if you were coming from Sunset Park and you spoke a foreign language, you can come to our school and it would be fine.”

A city press release today touted the new building’s many amenities and state-of-the art features but barely mentioned the innovative admissions policy. Chancellor Dennis Walcott, speaking at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, said he thought the school’s unique admissions model could be replicated, but he didn’t mention any plans to do so.

Initially the new building was going to house two different schools — P.S. 133, and a new school that would enroll students from District 15. District 15 has many more white students and middle-class students than District 13, and its average test scores are higher. District 15, which includes Sunset Park, also has more English language learners than District 13.

That plan drew fire for advancing a “separate but equal” arrangement. Later, the department and elected parent leaders voted to merge the two schools and call for the admissions quotas.

Foster-Mann said she is glad that the building now houses one school. “To have one unified school, it sends the message we can exist and have a diverse school that serves everybody’s needs and get along, because that’s exactly what Dr. King would want us to do,” she said.

In a large playground and basketball court area behind the school, students were getting their faces painted, jumping on an inflatable bouncy castle and playing  mini-golf while a live-deejay played top-40 hits. Dozens of booths were set up advertising after-school programs and selling P.S. 133 paraphernalia to parents and students.

While standing near the bouncy castle, parents Jebel and Ghessycka Bennett, who live in District 15, described their last-minute scramble to find a pre-kindergarten program for their son. Their zoned school, P.S. 10 in District 15, cancelled its pre-kindergarten program this year because of crowding that required additional sections of kindergarten. They said they signed up for 12 different schools and were lucky enough to land a spot at P.S. 133. The couple, who isn’t originally from New York, said they appreciated the chance to attend a school outside of their district.

P.S. 133 students enjoy the brand new gym.
P.S. 133 students play in the brand new gym.

“It just offers us, and other people, an opportunity to just find the best school for their kid regardless of where they happen to live,” she said. “And I think it will expose our son to meeting new people beyond his neighborhood.”

Ghessycka Bennett added that she likes P.S. 133 admissions policy because it doesn’t put pressure on parents to find the right apartment in the right school district just so their child can get into a certain school.

Inside the school building, with its fresh coats of paint and squeaky-clean hallways, pre-kindergarten teacher Jacqueline Didier stood in her new classroom and greeted parents and students.

Didier, who has taught at P.S. 133 for 17 years, said Bloomberg could take credit for the new admissions policy but it was really the staff who pushed hard for the dream to become a reality.

“He can say whatever he wants, but this is what we stressed we wanted … we wanted an equal opportunity for all kids,” she said. She added that she’s a firm believer that exposing children to others from different backgrounds when they’re younger creates a foundation of more acceptance as they grow up.

“You get away from when they get to high school, ‘Oh you’re Hispanic, you’re black you’re this you’re that… Oh I’m wearing Jordans, you have on Payless,'” she said. “It doesn’t make a difference. It’s equal opportunity because you’re all getting the same education.”

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