Building Better Schools

Feds put Indiana on notice: NCLB waiver in doubt

State board member Brad Oliver and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz at a meeting in December. (Scott Elliott)

Indiana schools could face sanctions under the federal No Child Left Behind law if the state cannot satisfactorily answer U.S. Department of Education concerns in 60 days about its plans for instituting its new standards.

On Thursday, Indiana State Superintendent Glenda Ritz received a letter from Deb Delisle, assistant U.S. secretary of education, spelling out concerns about “significant issues” with Indiana’s adherence to an agreement it made in with the federal government in 2012 that released the state from some NCLB rules.

The agreement included a promise to have high standards for all students, and federal authorities want proof that the standards the state recently adopted are as challenging as the ones they replaced, known as the Common Core.

Indiana State Board of Education member Brad Oliver said he has not seen the letter but he is alarmed.

“Based on what I know right now I am very concerned that our waiver could be in jeopardy,” he said. “The repercussions of losing our waiver are more than just financial. It would immediately have an impact on local districts.”

But Ritz’s spokesman, Dan Altman, said the letter was not a big surprise given dramatic changes in Indiana’s approach to standards and testing driven by new laws from the legislature. Bills that first paused Indiana’s implementation of Common Core standards and then voided them altogether required quick work by state education officials to stay on schedule to have standards and new tests in place for next school year, he said.

“There’s been whole lot of work happening at the department to put ourselves in compliance, not the least of which was the standards review process the superintendent just led,” he said. “That is a very big step in making sure we stay in compliance.”

The letter constitutes a lower level of notice from the federal government than other states have received, meaning the state’s NCLB waiver is in no immediate danger. Four states have been notified they are at “high risk” of losing their waivers, but Indiana was not added to that group yet.

Indiana is one of several states that asked U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for a waiver from some NCLB sanctions. The waiver was given partly on condition that the state adopt “college and career ready” academic standards. Indiana said in its application that it had already done that when it adopted Common Core standards in 2010.

But this March, state lawmakers, wary of federal involvement in state decisions about education, voided Indiana’s adoption of Common Core, making it the first of 45 states that had agreed to follow those standards to later pull out. The Indiana Education Roundtable and state board adopted new standards last month.

Those standards must be approved by a “state network of institutions of higher education” who can assert that Indiana’s graduates will not need remedial work in college after the change, Delisle wrote.

Indiana must also submit a detailed outline for how it will create and administer new state tests in the 2014-15 school year to assess student progress toward college and career readiness.

The  NCLB waiver allows Indiana to be judged on different criteria other than the law’s escalating goals for student test performance. Without the waiver, NCLB could have forced tough choices for making changes in numerous schools across the state that fell short of its expectations for improved test scores, like firing principals and replacing most of the teachers. It also would restrict how some federal dollars are spent, setting aside money for outside tutoring, and require notice to parents that the schools are failing under the federal definition.

Last month, Washington became the first state to lose its NCLB waiver.

“I believe you will have several schools failing under the federal model,” Oliver said.

Last fall, the U.S. Department of Education found Indiana was falling short on its waiver commitments. Among concerns it raised was that the state did not:

  • ensure low scoring schools were making changes that would raise test scores for groups of students that had fallen behind
  • make sure those schools were using multiple strategies to turn the schools around
  • adequately monitor and support implementation of new standards or teacher and principal evaluation systems in local schools

Federal officials, in their fall report, outlined several steps Indiana had to take to rectify those concerns. If all the steps are not taken, the state’s waiver could be jeopardized, according to Delisle’s letter to Ritz.

Oliver said he was frustrated that the state appeared to have slipped since its 2012 evaluation, which gave it high marks for compliance, to the point where the waiver could be threatened.

He wants answers from Ritz, he said.

“How is it we are so out of compliance?” he asked. “In one year’s time what has happened? It looks as if we’ve dropped the ball. I know the board hasn’t dropped it. We’ve been asking and we’ve been told everything is OK. That’s not adding up now.”

Altman said the concerns raised by federal officials when it comes to monitoring schools were based on a visit that happened last August, as Ritz’s school support network was just being put in place, and the department has made several improvements since then.

“It’s disappointing to see finger pointing,” he said. “We will report back to U.S. Department of Education and we will make sure that we will comply with what’s in the letter.”

 

survey says

How accessible are New York City’s high schools? Students with physical disabilities are about to find out

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
Midwood High School is considered inaccessible to students with physical disabilities.

Michelle Noris began her son’s high school search the way many parents of children with physical disabilities do: by throwing out most of the high school directory.

She knew her son Abraham would only have access to a few dozen of the city’s 400-plus high schools because of significant health needs, despite being a bright student with a knack for writing.

“I tore out every page that didn’t work in advance of showing [the directory] to him,” Noris recalls.

Even once they narrowed the list of potential schools, they still couldn’t be sure which schools Abraham — who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair — would be physically able to enter. The directory lists whether a school is considered partially or fully accessible, which, in theory, means that students should have access to “all relevant programs and services.”

In practice, however, the situation is much more complicated. “We had schools that are listed as partially accessible, but there’s no accessible bathroom,” said Noris, who is a member of the Citywide Council on Special Education. Some “accessible” schools might not have water fountains or cafeteria tables that accommodate students with mobility needs. A school’s auditorium could have a ramp, but no way for a wheelchair-bound student to get up on the stage.

Most of that information is not publicly available without calling a school or showing up for a visit — a process that can be time-consuming and demoralizing. But now, thanks in part by lobbying from Noris and other advocates, the city has pledged to begin filling the information gap. The education department will soon release more detailed information about exactly how accessible its high schools are.

Based on a 58-question survey, the city is collecting more granular data: if music rooms or computer labs are accessible, for instance, or whether there’s a slight step in a library that could act as a barrier. The survey also tracks whether a student in a wheelchair would have to use a side or back entrance to make it into the building.

“Sometimes, [parents] actually have to visit four or five of our schools to see if their child could get to every area of the school that’s important to them,” said Tom Taratko, who heads the education department’s space management division. “We didn’t think that was right.”

Virtually every physical amenity will be documented, Taratko said, down to whether a school has braille signage or technology for students with hearing impairments.

Education department officials are still fine-tuning exactly how to translate the city’s new accessibility inventory into a user-friendly dataset families can use. Some of the new information will be made available in the high school directory, and the results of each school’s survey will be available online.

Officials said the new data would be provided in “the coming weeks” for all high schools in Manhattan and Staten Island. The rest of the city’s high schools should be included before the next admissions cycle.

The survey will help identify which schools could be made accessible with relatively few changes, Taratko explained. “Everything — our shortcomings, our strengths — everything will be out there.”

The decision to release more high school accessibility data comes less than two years after a scathing U.S. Department of Justice investigation revealed “inexcusable” accommodations in elementary schools.

Many of the city’s school buildings were built before the Americans with Disabilities Act became law, and despite committing $100 million in its current five-year capital budget to upgrades, many schools are still not accessible. According to 2016 data, the most recent available, just 13 percent of district and charter schools that serve high school grades are fully accessible. About 62 percent are partially accessible, and 25 percent are considered inaccessible.

Making accessibility data public could help change those numbers, said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children who has pushed for greater transparency and praised the initiative.

“Once it’s out there, there’s so much more self-advocacy a parent can do,” Moroff said. “Then they can make requests about specific accommodations.”

Greater transparency is just one step in the process. Moroff hopes the city will consider taking students’ physical disabilities into account during the admissions process so that academically qualified students get preference for accessible schools. Once students arrive, she added, they must be welcomed by the school community.

“There needs to be much more work to hold the schools accountable to actually welcoming those students,” Moroff said. “It has to go hand in hand with making renovations and making accommodations.”

Even though the data comes too late for Noris, whose son submitted applications to just two high schools out of a possible twelve due to accessibility constraints, she is optimistic future families will have an easier time navigating the process.

“They didn’t say, ‘We’re going to do this over the next ten years.’ They said, ‘We’re going to do this in two years,’” Noris said, noting that she hopes more funding is allocated to upgrade buildings. “I think it’s a real example of the Department of Education hearing the needs and being willing to act on it.”

Student activist

With Townsend Harris in turmoil over interim principal, one student quietly takes a leading role

PHOTO: The Classic
Alex Chen walks the hallway during a student sit-in he helped organize at Townsend Harris High School.

While students across the nation have taken to the streets to protest President Trump, some are fighting battles closer to home. Just ask Alex Chen, the student union president at Townsend Harris High School, who is helping to lead a high-profile fight against Interim Acting Principal Rosemarie Jahoda.

Chen spent much of his February break rallying fellow students, alumni and parents from the elite Queens school to demonstrate in front of City Hall on Friday, asking the city to remove Jahoda from consideration for the permanent post. The controversy has put the 17-year-old in the uncomfortable position of going against his school’s top official.

But Chen insists this isn’t a student vs. principal situation.

“It might have felt like that sometimes, but I don’t really see it that way. I see it more as a community that’s rising up,” he said.

Opposition has mounted against Jahoda since September, when she stepped in to lead the school. More than 3,500 people, including self-identified parents and alumni, have signed a petition against her, claiming that she has harassed faculty, changed course offerings without proper input and that she has been “aloof or even combative” toward students.

In a statement, Jahoda said: “While I am frustrated by many of these inaccurate allegations, I remain 100% focused on serving students and families at Townsend Harris and working to move the school community forward.”

Meanwhile, Chen has been thrust into the spotlight. In December, during a student sit-in he helped organize, he had a tense standoff with Deputy Superintendent Leticia Pineiro.

“How are your teachers being harassed? I’m curious,” the superintendent quipped to Chen in a livestream broadcast by the student newspaper. “You’re speaking and I believe people should speak from fact. I’m a factual person.”

Chen spoke slowly, his voice a near whisper. Even when the superintendent suggested Chen had invaded her personal space, Chen stayed quiet and calm.

“I really just wanted to be able to communicate with her,” he later told Chalkbeat.

He returned to class, replaying the scene in his head and wondering whether he had handled it right. When he walked in the door, his classmates burst into applause.

“He’s become this symbol for everyone involved. And I think he earned it,” said Brian Sweeney, an English teacher and newspaper advisor who has Chen in his journalism class. “When you’re in that video with everyone watching, and you’re willing to keep talking and keep saying what you think … there’s a lot of trust for everyone involved.”

Since the sit-in, the School Leadership Team at Townsend took the unusual step of making Chen a co-chair of the board, made up of teachers, parents and union reps.

“I believe it was a matter of trust and productivity. We needed co-chairs who could move forward with the issues at the table, rather than be stuck in tension,” Chen said.

Even while he fights to make sure Jahoda isn’t appointed permanently, Chen said he has maintained a “very professional relationship” with her. In SLT and student union meetings where Jahoda is present, Chen said he makes an effort to “stick to the agenda.”

“We still have to keep the school running,” he said. “In the hallways, I’ll say good morning. I’ll say hello. Because that’s what you’re supposed to do.”

The Department of Education opened applications for a permanent principal on Feb. 1 and said the process takes up to 90 days. The pushback against Jahoda means many are watching the department’s next moves. This week, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz wrote a letter to Chancellor Carmen Fariña about the matter.

“Accusations and troubling accounts are occurring on a daily basis,” she wrote. “The students of our system deserve to know that the DOE is providing the tools, atmosphere and attention needed to fulfill our responsibilities to them.”

Chen has responsibilities of his own. At home in Hollis Hills, he helps take care of his younger sister and is expected to finish his chores. He’s looking for a job to have a bit of his own money. And with senior year winding down, he spends a lot of time chasing scholarships. Chen hopes to study business at University of Pennsylvania, though lately many people have asked him whether he’ll go into politics.

“I don’t think I will for now, because there’s a lot that goes on in politics that kind of disturbs me,” he said. “After high school, after college, after your youth, it seems like people [tend] to be more self-interested than to help in the community.”