a wider net

More students qualify for gifted programs; DOE credits outreach

A chart produced by the Department of Education that shows
A chart produced by the Department of Education that shows the number of children qualifying for gifted programs in each district, compared to last year.

Nearly 50 percent more incoming kindergartners scored high enough on two nationally normed assessments to be eligible for a seat in a gifted and talented program, according to data released today by the Department of Education. The percentage of test-takers who qualified also increased, from 18 to 22 percent.

The jump in participation shows that the standardized procedures the DOE established last year for admission to gifted programs are gaining traction, DOE spokesman Andrew Jacob told me today. “It reflects that families are more familiar with the way we’re running the admissions process,” he said.

The increased number of students eligible for gifted programs could be seen as a feather in the cap for the DOE, which has said it wants to expand access to gifted programs to children citywide, particularly in communities that have not had robust gifted programs in the past. Jacob told me the department this year ramped up its outreach to prekindergarten programs in districts where too few children took the tests and scored high enough last year to warrant opening programs.

“We wanted to find as many children as possible in the city who could meet the standard that we set,” he said.

In terms of sheer numbers, some of the biggest gains happened in districts that already enroll many children in gifted programs, including the districts comprising Staten Island and most of Manhattan below 96th Street.

Children are eligible to join a gifted program if they score in the 90th percentile or higher on two nationally normed assessments; children who score in the 97th percentile or higher can also apply to ultra-elite citywide programs.

The DOE has said it will add as many as 175 seats in citywide programs, bringing the total number to 435; a total of 1,345 incoming kindergartners scored high enough to jockey for coveted spots, ensuring that many families who apply to citywide programs will not be placed in them. The total number of students qualifying for gifted admission is 3,231. All of the children, including those who qualify for the more selective programs, are guaranteed a spot in a district program if they want one.

Families will receive their children’s scores this week. The next step is for families of eligible children to submit an application ranking the programs in their district and, if applicable, elsewhere in the city. The DOE will match families with programs based on their preferences and demand for each program and will let families know where they’ve been accepted by mid-June.

The department has said it expects applications to gifted programs to siphon away some of the enrollment crunch that has left families on the waiting list for their zoned school at more than 100 schools around the city. It will not be until the end of the school year, when families are required to accept or decline the gifted program they’ve been placed into, that waitlists at overenrolled schools should start moving, Jacob told me today.

The admissions process is substantially the same as last year, when it debuted to some rocky results, including a drop in the number of children in poor districts gaining admission to gifted programs. But there are some some changes, Jacob told me. First, he said that while the department hasn’t yet set a minimum number of students for a gifted class, the number will definitely be higher than the one used this year, when programs were permitted to open with as few as eight students.

Also, the DOE is trying to make it easier for families to evaluate their options. Last year, many parents reported finding it difficult to figure out which schools were holding open houses and when. This year, the DOE is maintaining a schedule of open houses for all schools that families of eligible children can rank.

Even with the increase, most families still do not participate in the gifted screening process. When the DOE first announced the standardized G&T admissions procedures last year, it said it planned to screen every child for eligibility this year. It dropped that plan last May as a result of budget cuts. Jacob told me today the decision to scrap universal screening was also a response to an outcry from some parents who said they did not want their children tested. He said the department is instead focusing on outreach to continue increasing the number of families seeking G&T screening.

From my conversations with parents, it’s clear that there is much room for improved outreach. When I was at the lottery for the Harlem Success network of charter schools two weeks ago, I asked all the parents I spoke to whether they had also had their children screened for gifted programs, in addition to applying for charter schools. Only one had, and several told me they didn’t know they had the option or found out about it only after the deadline had passed.

I spent way more time than I should have tonight looking at the numbers. Tomorrow, I’ll post a little more analysis about the data released today.

2009 Gat Results

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.