Building Better Schools

Indiana dodges NCLB waiver bullet, for now

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Indiana today got a one-year reprieve from possible penalties from the U.S. Department of Education.

Those penalties, including the loss of control over more than $200 million in federal aid that goes to local schools, wouldn’t happen before June 30 of 2015.

“Its a good thing for students and schools,” said Claire Fiddian-Green, the co-director of Gov. Mike Pence’s Center for Education and Career Innovation.

State superintendent Glenda Ritz also hailed the decision, saying it signaled her department’s work met fedral standards and put Indiana clearly on a path toward a long-term renewal of the waiver.

“Today’s decision by the U.S. Department of Education validates the work that we done,” she said.

Losing the waiver, releasing it from some of the rules of the federal No Child Left Behind Law, would have meant a share of money that now funds programs, pays salaries and otherwise supports efforts to raise student test scores could be taken away to be used for other services, such as hiring outside tutors to work with low-scoring children. Schools would likely have had to cut back on some services.

No Child Left Behind, signed in 2002, required states to establish testing and accountability systems to raise all children to proficiency in math and English. But test score growth expectations in NCLB that many states complained were unrealistically tough led President Obama’s administration to permit “waivers” from some of those rules.

Indiana was approved to use its own A to F school grading system for accountability under the waiver and pledged to adopt the Common Core academic standards to meet a requirement to follow standards that would produce graduates who are “college- and career-ready.”

In May the federal education department raised concerns that Indiana was not staying true to the 2012 waiver agreement. State officials now have 10 more months to convince federal officials they are in line with the promises they made. If they can, they could get the waiver extended for more multiple years.

One issue the U.S. Department of Education wants more explanation about is how thoroughly Indiana’s teacher and principal evaluation system measures and rewards improved student test scores and whether it ensures all schools meet its standards.

Some advocates who pushed for tougher evaluation when a law overhauling teacher evaluation passed in 2011 were disappointed this year when nearly all teachers were rated effective, just as they generally were in the past. The first results of the new system in May showed 97 percent of teachers statewide were rated effective or highly effective. Critics said it was implausible that so few teachers were ineffective.

Two factors may have helped those numbers stay high. Ritz allowed school districts last year to measure teachers less on their students’ test results and more on observations and other factors, citing online testing problems in 2013. Also, there was an exception to the 2011 law that allowed some school districts to delay using the new evaluation system until their union contracts expired. About 40 of Indiana’s 290 districts are still operating under old contracts and following their prior systems.

The extension means the state was not raised to “high risk” status, as some feared it might be, suggesting federal officials have higher confidence that their concerns can be resolved here than they do in four states that have been placed on that highest level of alert.

One state, Washington, saw its waiver revoked earlier this year.

Indiana’s waiver concerns reignited an ongoing debate between state Superintendent Glenda Ritz and Republican elected leaders, especially Pence, over who controls, and should answer for, Indiana’s education policy decisions.

In May, Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education Deb Delisle sent a letter to Ritz giving her 60 days to explain how Indiana would resolve concerns by federal officials on three fronts: whether its new standards and new tests were in line with federal expectations, whether Ritz was adequately monitoring low-scoring schools and whether teacher evaluation was working properly.

It appears the first two questions are resolved, and while there are questions about teacher evaluation, no conditions were placed on the waiver.

The Indiana State Board of Education, an 11-member body chaired by Ritz but otherwise appointed by Republican governors, in July passed a resolution critical of the Indiana education department’s thoroughness and accuracy in crafting the waiver. Ritz has said she feels those complaints, along with a critique of the Indiana Department of Education’s waiver extension proposal submitted to federal officials by CECI, were unfounded and put Indiana’s chances of keeping the waiver in jeopardy.

The state board is expected to discuss next steps when it meets on Wednesday.

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.”