school choice

Harlem parents say they want their local schools shut down

A group of parents is sharply criticizing the Department of Education for backing away from its decision to shut down struggling neighborhood elementary schools, saying Mayor Bloomberg should “take a hard line” and turn over the buildings to be used as charter schools.

The parents, who are zoned to have their children attend two of the schools that would have been closed and replaced with charter schools, said that they want the mayor to shut the schools down because the schools are dirty, dangerous, and filled with teachers who are “just there for a paycheck.”

“I live across the street from 194,” one mother, Melissia Daley, wrote of P.S. 194, a Harlem elementary school that would have been closed under the city’s original plan. “Although it’s a zoned school and very convenient for me and my child, I wouldn’t even try to put my child in there because the children are well behind in grade.”

“If they are closing 241 to put a better school in its place, then they should do that,” one parent, Martinique Owens, said, of another Harlem school, P.S. 241, in a similar situation.

Their statements came in a press release issued this afternoon by a spokeswoman for the Harlem Success Academy network of charter schools, Jenny Sedlis. Two Harlem Success schools were planning to become the sole occupants of the P.S. 194 and P.S. 241 buildings after those schools closed. Those schools will have to continue sharing space with district elementary schools next year.

Representatives of the Harlem Success network called parents registered for next week’s admission lottery, told them that the charter schools were being threatened by government action, and asked them to attend a meeting today about the conflict, according to Cherokee Rivero, a mother who has entered her son in the lottery that determines who gets into Harlem Success.

Rivero estimated that about 40 parents turned out for the meeting, where they wrote short statements about why they didn’t want their children to attend their zoned school. “If it takes me to write this letter to get something better for my son, then I will,” Rivero, who attended PS 194 herself from 1994 to 2000, told me tonight.

The release attacks the teachers union for filing a lawsuit opposing the DOE’s plan to replace the two elementary schools with charter schools. The lawsuit was initiated by the United Federation of Teachers and the New York Civil Liberties Union. Its plaintiffs included several community members not otherwise associated with the union, as well as the union’s president, Randi Weingarten. The union and parents alleged that the DOE’s bid to replace the schools represented an illegal alteration of school zone lines.

“Does Randi Weingarten think she knows better than me what is best for my child? The school is broken and I don’t want to send my child there. Why does she think she can speak for me?” a mother named Melissa Anderson, whose child is zoned for P.S. 241, said in a statement.

Weingarten responded today in an interview with Elizabeth, accusing the founder of Harlem Success, the former City Council member Eva Moskowitz, of devolving into personal attack. Moskowitz took on labor unions in council hearings, and then lost a run for Manhattan borough president after Weingarten’s union organized against her. “Let her run great schools and do great things for kids, and let me do great things for kids,” Weingarten said. “But this nonsense that the only way to elevate herself is to bring other people down: she should be above that.”

The entire press release is after the jump:

Harlem Parents to Mayor Bloomberg: Get Real, Close These Failing Schools!

NEW YORK, NY – April 2, 2009 – More than 175 parents of students in the attendance area of two failing Harlem schools demanded today that the schools be shut down by Mayor Bloomberg.

“My son attends P.S. 194. He comes home unhappy everyday. P.S. 194 has taken his joy,” said Janet Walker, mom of Nasir. “I want a new chance for him to get his joy back. He deserves a better education.”

The parents, whose children are zoned to attend P.S. 241 and P.S. 194 came to several meetings at Harlem Success Academy to talk about how to keep their kids from having to attend the two failing schools.

Both failing schools have been targeted by the Department of Education for closure, but the move has been opposed by the powerful United Federation of Teachers, which filed a lawsuit to protect employees at the unpopular public schools. In addition to demanding action from Mayor Bloomberg, the parents argued that the UFT does not represent their interests, calling it shameful that the union would so blatantly attempt to keep children in substandard academic environments just to save teacher jobs.

“Does Randi Weingarten think she knows better than me what is best for my child? The school is broken and I don’t want to send my child there. Why does she think she can speak for me?” said Melissa Anderson, mother of a child zoned for P.S. 241.

The parents took aim at attempts by the UFT to pretend it was speaking for parents in the name of “saving public education” when all the union was doing was driving families to have to pay for private schools for their children.

“I’m tired of these special interests claiming they represent me. Did the teachers union ask me if P.S. 241 should close? If they asked me, I would have said, yes, absolutely” said the mom of Emanuel Agbavitor, a first grader at P.S. 241. “I never get to see my child’s teacher, I don’t know how he’s doing in school and they don’t return my phone calls.”

Parents said if Mayor Bloomberg wants to be known as the education mayor, he can’t pander to the teachers union and must take a hard line against failure.

“The teachers union is trying to prevent a bad school from closing and me from sending my child to the school of my choice,” said Thiong Sall, mother of two children zoned for P.S. 241. “Mayor Bloomberg should not listen to the union and should instead listen to parents like me.”

“I live across the street from 194 and although it’s a zoned school and very convenient for me, I wouldn’t put my child in there because the children are well behind,” said Melissa Haley. “I used to attend 194. I would prefer a school where it is not only clean which 194 isn’t, but also where there are teachers that are willing to see children get not 65% but 100%.”

“I feel good about them closing 194. Teachers are there just for a paycheck, not to help kids learn,” said Shamecca Davis, mother of Tytiana. “Children beat each other up and there are not enough supervisors.”

“If by closing P.S. 241 they can put something better in its place then it should definitely close,” said Martinique Owens, mother of a kindergartner zoned for P.S. 241.

“The school is not good. I had my oldest son in that school. The teachers yell at the students and don’t pay enough attention to the parents and students. I pulled my older son out and I will not send my younger one there” said Octavio Maldonado, parent of two children zoned for P.S. 241.

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.