turning five

Special ed reforms causing evaluation backlog, advocates say

Bumps in rolling out new special education rules are holding up crucial assessments of the city’s youngest students, advocates say.

Consequences could be severe if the assessments aren’t completed by the June 15 deadline. Students who don’t receive placements by that date but do need special education services are entitled to full reimbursement of private school tuition dollars, according to state law.

That’s not likely to happen: Even in a typical year there aren’t enough private school placements for all the students who are entitled to them. But the crunch does suggest the city faces difficulties in cutting its growing expenditures on private school special education placements, which Mayor Bloomberg complained last year costs the city $100 million annually.

Months into the rollout of a set of special education reforms meant in part to integrate disabled children into their neighborhood schools, advocates report that the city is scrambling to evaluate children with special needs who will be entering kindergarten this fall.

“It’s going to be really difficult to get things into place for a large number of families of students who are going to come into kindergarten next year,” said Maggie Moroff, the coordinator of the ARISE Coalition, which supports special education advocates.

School officials say they are confident they can complete evaluations for all of the students and meet with their parents to offer the students placements by the June 15 deadline.

A confluence of factors seem to have contributed to the delayed timeline, which is about two months behind where it should be, Moroff said. Advocates say they’ve heard from families who have been told they won’t learn their placement until the end of the summer or later.

One issue is that after receiving a brief spurt of attention when ex-Chancellor Cathie Black delayed some parts of the reforms, changes to special education were overshadowed this spring by turnover at the Department of Education.

Another issue is that the city’s move to shift who makes placements from a central office to individual schools has created confusion about where responsibility lies. For the first time this year, local schools are supposed to be evaluating and accommodating students with disabilities who are turning 5. But some schools have continued to turn some families away, telling them that they must seek an evaluation from a central special education office, according to Ellen McHugh of Parent to Parent of NYS, an advocacy group.

In addition, the March rollout of a new special education data system, called SESIS, is tripping school officials up as they try to enter evaluation results. Support staff in schools have registered a host of complaints with the teachers union about problems with SESIS, according to Dick Riley, a union spokesman.

The department’s internal deadline for evaluations to be entered into SESIS is May 26 — Thursday.

And even when SESIS is working the way it should, schools’ limited bandwidth cannot always sustain the high-memory task of entering data. “I’ve been in schools where they just don’t have the bandwidth to do this,” McHugh said.

The result of all of these problems is a tremendous backlog of evaluations that could drive a significant number of children with special needs into private placements. Families who are not offered a placement by June 15 will automatically receive what’s called a Nickerson letter entitling them to attend private school on the city’s tab.

With about 15,000 children turning five this year, the city could be on the hook for millions of dollars.

“I don’t think that all of those families that receive Nickerson letters as a result of this are actually going to be able to use those Nickerson letters in a meaningful way,” Moroff said. “But I don’t think it’s fair to blame the families.”

Despite the implementation problems, the reforms remain a positive step for the department because they represent a move toward inclusion, Moroff said.

Explained, Deirdrea Miller, a DOE spokeswoman, “As part of the reform, we have asked schools and the Committees on Special Education to produce individual education plans with more flexible programming recommendations that address the unique needs of the city’s incoming kindergartners,”

Still, Moroff said, “From a parent’s point of view it’s tremendously disruptive and disturbing not to know.”

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.