space wars

De Blasio: City fails to engage parents on school siting issues

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, speaking today on the steps of the Department of Education's headquarters at Tweed Courthouse
Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, speaking today on the steps of the Department of Education

When two courts halted the city’s plans to close 19 public schools this year, judges ruled that the city didn’t follow state law that requires it to engage parents and report the impact that the changes will have on students’ educations.

Now Public Advocate Bill de Blasio is arguing that the city is making the same mistakes when it decides to place multiple schools in the same buildings.

In a report released today, de Blasio charges that the city did not give parents enough information about how changes to space usage would affect instructional programs or about public hearings on the changes.

“They’re just doing the minimum amount of parent outreach so they can say they did,” de Blasio said today.

De Blasio’s office and the Alliance for Quality Education surveyed nearly 875 parents at 34 schools, about half of those that the city proposed moving into new, shared space last year. (Roughly half of public schools citywide currently share building space with other schools.)

The survey included responses from parents at both district and charter schools. It also included several schools that were the sites of fierce battles over colocation last school year, including the Clinton School for Writers and Artists and the American Sign Language School; Girls Prep Charter School and P.S. 188; and PAVE Charter School and P.S. 15.

More than 40 percent of the parents who responded said that the city had not provided specific detail on how the school’s current offerings would change under altered space arrangements.

When the city makes any changes to how school facilities are used, state law requires it to prepare an “educational impact statement” (EIS) detailing how the changes will affect students and the surrounding community. Fewer than half of the parents reported that they even knew that the city had prepared an analysis of the changes, and only a quarter ever saw a copy of the analysis.

The court rulings threw out the city’s EIS’s for its 19 school closure proposals, but judges were silent on whether accompanying proposals to move new schools into those buildings would also be affected. In part to avoid another lawsuit, the city struck a deal with the teachers union to place fewer new schools in buildings alongside schools that had been slated to close.

Speaking at a press conference with de Blasio today, a parent leader at one of the schools affected by that deal complained that parents had been shut out of the process from the start.

“We never hear about the hearings,” said Yvette Chico, vice president of the parent association at he William H. Maxwell CTE High School. “They never let us know.”

De Blasio has staked out a cautious middle ground between the city and the union on education issues, endorsing the charter cap lift but also calling for a halt on siting them in city school buildings. Under a rallying cry of boosting the parent voice in the school system, de Blasio has made colocations his central education issue.

DOE spokesman Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld said that the city was always trying to improve how it engages with parents, but criticized de Blasio’s focus on the educational impact statements. City officials, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have frequently said that the importance of their school closing efforts outweighs the details of state law.

“We wish the Public Advocate showed the same amount of concern for our children stuck in failing schools as he does for DOE processes,” Zarin-Rosenfeld said.

De Blasio said that he did not know of any potential legal challenges to the DOE’s process of siting schools, nor did he challenge the legitimacy of school siting arrangements that were approved last year. Instead, he called for a moratorium on new school colocations until the city improves its process.

And Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, called on Albany to revise the school governance law to make explicit exactly what information the city needs to include in its impact statements.

Here’s the full report:

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.