Tennessee

Only two bills still alive out of 22 to limit the state’s school turnaround district

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari's district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state's Achievement School District.

Two months after the leader of the state’s school turnaround district implored lawmakers to give the sweeping program time to succeed or fail, it appears that Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD) will weather the legislative session intact.

As the 109th General Assembly enters its final month, only two of 22 bills to limit the district’s authority are left standing. Of those, ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic had input in both.

The remaining two bills were approved Wednesday by the Senate Education Committee.

The first, introduced by Rep. Harold Love (D-Nashville) and Sen. Reginald Tate (D-Memphis), requires the state Department of Education to notify schools that they are in the bottom 10 percent of Tennessee schools a year before the release of the state’s priority list, which identifies the bottom 5 percent and makes them vulnerable to state takeover. The intention is to give struggling schools time to improve before the state intervenes.

The second bill, sponsored by Tate and Rep. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis), prohibits the ASD from taking over schools with high student growth scores.

The House sponsors of both bills said they were willing to compromise with officials from the ASD and the state Education Department because they want results for their constituents. More sweeping legislation – such as bills to abolish the school district altogether – never received motions for discussion, much less votes.

Love and Akbari revised their bills after talking with officials from the ASD and the Education Department, which Barbic said he appreciated. “We want to make sure folks understand what we’re doing, and sit down and have those conversations,” he said.

Akbari and Love told Chalkbeat they don’t oppose the ASD, but they do oppose the district’s process for state intervention. They said their constituents often feel bullied by the district’s rapid action.

“It may take a few years for [the ASD] to be more palatable [to constituents] because, right now, it’s viewed as an intrusion — let me use better words — it’s viewed as a takeover,” Love said. “Anything like that happens and it hurts the chances of successes.”

The bill to give warning to struggling schools is scheduled to be discussed April 7 in the House Education Administration and Planning Committee. The bill to prohibit takeover of schools with high TVAAS scores is slated for consideration April 8 in the House Finance subcommittee.

The legislative climate for the ASD today has improved somewhat since February when Barbic – besieged by legislative proposals targeting the 4-year-old district – testified before the Senate Education Committee. “There’s 22 bills that have been filed right now that are either trying to kill [the ASD] or pull it apart, and this thing hasn’t even gotten out of the petri dish,” Barbic said amidst a lengthy discussion.

Akbari and Love had filed other bills intended to curb the ASD’s intervention process. Both moved to disallow phase-in models, in which the ASD’s charter operator takes over a school only one grade at a time while the local district continues to operate the remaining grades. They argued that the model – known as co-location – hurts students in older grades who are stuck in a school that the state has labeled as failing.

“I had one parent tell me it was like some children were going to this new special school, and other children were just getting the resources leftover,” Akbari said. “And I don’t want any child to feel like that.”

Shelby County Schools no longer allows the ASD to co-locate with their schools, which was a contributing factor in a decision last week by YES Prep, a Texas-based charter operator, to pull out of Memphis.

Love also originally had filed a bill to forbid the ASD from adding grades that the school didn’t serve before its takeover. For instance, the LEAD charter network, which will operate Neely’s Bend Middle School in Nashville, is considering eventually adding a high school at that location.

Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.
Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.

Ultimately, Akbari and Love said they focused on the two bills that have the best chance of passing.

“The other bills, you know, they’re so important to me,” Akbari said. “But I don’t think we can get any sort of support for them [this year], and that’s the key.”

However, Akbari said the ASD and its work will remain a subject for potential future legislation. “I am not going to let the issue fade into the sunset,” she said. “These issues are too important for those who live in Memphis.”

Contact Grace Tatter at gtatter@chalkbeat.org.

Follow us on Twitter: @GraceTatter, @chalkbeattn.

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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