get out and play

A parent, like others before her, is pushing for cold-weather play

A child at play
PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
A child at play. Photo by ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/admiretime/##admiretime##, via Flickr

An Upper West Side mom and education researcher is arguing that her son and his classmates need an active, outdoor recess — even when it’s very cold outside.

Anne Feighery said she noticed that her second-grade son was coming home grumpy every day from PS 166 this winter. Feighery, who is an education researcher and doctoral fellow at Columbia University’s Teachers College, told me she identified the reason for her son’s bad mood when she realized that he hadn’t been outside to play in days because PS 166 keeps students indoors for recess when the temperature drops below 40 degrees.

Feighery said the indoor recess PS 166 offered instead was inadequate to meet children’s needs. During a 6-week span when he didn’t go outside this winter, her 8-year-old son got hurt during indoor playtime as his fellow students’ pent-up energy turned indoor games violent, she said.

“We began talking about it with other friends who have children in other schools and a lot of people have this problem—it wasn’t unique to us,” Feighery said. (The debate is definitely not new: A Yonkers teacher complained in the New York Times in 2003 of “a new layer of fat” parents might find hanging off their children each spring due to skipped winter recesses.)

So she wrote a letter to Schools Chancellor Joel Klein that she posted on her blog, asking that the Department of Education exercise greater oversight on schools’ recess, and she launched a Facebook group to lobby for changes.

“Right now because it’s left up to each school, days and days go by and no one’s keeping track of it, there’s no accountability,” Feighery said. Individual principals decide when the weather is too cold for recess, a DOE spokesman confirmed.

Feighery told me recess is a “far-reaching” practice that can cut down on childhood obesity, help children learn through play, and improve student behavior. But schools face the challenge of fitting in time for recess in an already packed schedule. In the winter, they must also consider safety concerns about icy play areas and some parents’ worries that playing outside in the cold will make their children sick. 

A recent study we wrote about before by the Alliance for Childhood reports that unstructured play in kindergarten makes for better-balanced adults who do not lag behind their more structured peers academically even though they spent less time studying in kindergarten. And New York State’s Healthy Schools Act, passed in 2007, requires schools to provide students in 8th grade and under with a recess period of up to 30 minutes a day when there is no physical education class.

A DOE spokesman declined to comment on the DOE’s position on recess, but back in February, commenting on a 2008 study by then-Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrión’s office that found that about 90 percent of Bronx public schools don’t comply with the state’s physical activity requirement, a DOE spokeswoman said the department was working to improve physical education offerings.

“We share Borough President Carrión’s concerns, and that’s why we have worked hard over the past five years to improve physical education in New York City schools and give more students access to high quality programs,” DOE spokeswoman Marge Feinberg wrote to a Bronx community newspaper at the time.

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.