Calling for change in Douglas County

PARKER – Teachers, students and parents packed a middle school auditorium and spilled into the hallways during a school board community forum Tuesday night that was long on criticism and short on answers.

Brenda Smith, president of the Douglas County teachers' union, spoke Tuesday about staff morale, which a survey says is plummeting.

Some 20 speakers, many of them teachers, used the occasion to vent concerns about deep cuts to schools that have swollen class sizes and to accuse board members of starving public education in their quest to implement the state’s first district-run voucher program.

Students also took up the cause, with a group of high school students calling themselves SMART – Students Making A Reliable Tomorrow – telling board members “the quality of our education is declining.”

Katie Kade, a senior at Chaparral High School and one of more than a dozen students who attended as SMART, said she has 43 classmates in her Advanced Placement math class: “It really is affecting us at our schools.”

Susan Meek, a parent and former district spokeswoman who lost her bid for a school board seat in November, was warmly applauded as she questioned why the district’s fund balance continues to grow.

“At the same time, we have higher class sizes, we have increased fees for families, we have bus fees,” she said. “Why aren’t the available resources being maximized in the schools?”

But much of the focus Tuesday night at Sierra Middle School was on teachers, as union president Brenda Smith presented the results of a survey showing employee morale has fallen steeply in recent years.

“What you see is an outcry for change,” she said. “This survey solidifies we have a problem.”

Smith said the union contracted with Augenblick, Palaich and Associates – a firm previously used by the district for finance studies – after district leaders brushed off her concerns about staff morale.

More than 2,400 teachers and clerical staff responded to the survey, conducted in November and December, which used the same questions as prior district surveys to track trends.

Smith described the results as “astonishing,” with only 14 percent of respondents agreeing the district is headed in the right direction, down from 77 percent in 2007-08. Only 23 percent said they feel district leaders support their work in the classroom, down from 71 percent in 2009-10.

“It would be easy to say it’s just because of the economy,” which has led to four years without raises, she said. “But it is a direct result of the direction the district has taken in the past two years.”

That’s when a newly elected conservative majority on the board hired a new superintendent and went to work on a voucher pilot that was later stopped by a Denver judge.

Douglas County's school board community forum Tuesday in Parker drew a standing-room-only audience, many of them teachers.

Smith said Augenblick is continuing to sort through the responses to the open-ended questions contained in the survey and more details will be available within the next two weeks.

“We ask you tonight to join us to change the direction of the district and return the focus to our students,” she told board members, who have yet to formally respond to the survey results.

In fact, board members had little to say in response to questions from speakers, despite being goaded by audience members. It’s common practice in some larger school districts, such as Denver, that board members listen but do not answer questions during public comment sessions.

Board member Justin Williams did question one of Smith’s recommendations, which was “no more cuts” for Douglas County students.

“I don’t know how we could guarantee that there’s not going to be more cuts,” he said, noting cuts aren’t the board’s fault. “They’re the legislature’s fault, they’re the principals’ fault and they’re the teachers’ fault.”

It wasn’t clear what he meant but the remark drew hisses and shouts of “boo” from audience members.

Pam Mazanec, a voucher advocate who spoke after Smith, also found little favor with the crowd.

“I’ve heard about the survey that the union was able to get. I say that survey and results mean nothing … if we do not know the why behind this crash in morale,” she said, her voice nearly drowned out by the audience.

“I would also add that some of the behavior here tonight, I hope they don’t allow this from their students,” she said, adding, “This is a good reason why many parents want school choice.”

As Mazanec walked back to her seat, a male voice in the crowd shouted, “This is what democracy looks like,” and applause broke out.

District spokesman Randy Barber said district officials are not ignoring the survey results, though they’re uncertain how employees were selection for inclusion. The district plans to resume its own climate survey this spring, after suspending it during last year’s strategic planning, and will ask similar questions of a broader audience that will include staff and community.

“Is it feedback, is it something we’re going to pay attention to?” he said of the union’s results. “Certainly.”

Brenda Smith, union president, addresses the school board on staff morale

Crowd response to Smith and board member Justin Williams’ subsequent remarks

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.