edu-tourism

City schools tour aims to spur democratic education elsewhere

iSchool students taking part in a Model United Nations class that the IDEA tour visited

Ammerah Saidi, a program coordinator with Detroit Future Schools, meandered in and out of classrooms in the iSchool one morning last week. She had her pick of classes to observe – classes such as “Sixteen,” a course designed around the question of what it means to be 16 in New York City, and Cartography, where students creatively mapped their hearts and fictional worlds.

Saidi was one of nearly 30 educators, advocates, and consultants from across the country and world taking part in a two-day, three-borough tour of schools and programs that promote democratic education.

“To hear about student-centeredness is one thing, but to feel it is something different,” Saidi said later in the day. “I love being reminded that it should be about the students at all times.”

That getting up close and personal with democratic modes of schooling is likely to inspire educators to change their practice is the theory behind the Institute for Democratic Education in America‘s “Innovation Tours” of city schools. Inspired by an Israeli organization, IDEA promotes the vision that students and communities should be democratically invested in their schools. To get educators to sign on, the group exposes them to democratic models of schooling in action. The goal of each Innovation Tour, which IDEA co-founders Dana Bennis and Jonah Canner lead, is for participants to walk away with ideas about how to broaden participation in their own communities — and then to implement those ideas, with IDEA’s help.

“We’re not just creating a certain school and modeling it and building it out around the country,” said Bennis, now IDEA’s director of research and programs. “This is about communities coming together and asking: What are our goals for education? What do we want to achieve?”

During last week’s tour, the group’s third since its founding in 2010, participants visited the iSchool, a centerpiece of the Department of Education’s Innovation Zone, and Urban Academy, the alternative high school on the Upper East Side whose students demonstrate proficiency through presentations and projects instead of Regents exams. They heard the principal of Brooklyn’s P.S. 28 describe her vision for a school that helps everyone in the community, not just the students who are enrolled. And they saw how The Point, a community group in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx, works with new schools, develops green spaces, and provides outlets for creativity.

Administrators at the two high schools emphasized  the ways they grant students and teachers the freedom to shape the curriculum and program. At both schools, teachers design courses they want to teach and students select most of the classes they take, and classes include students from all grades whose learning is dictated by their interests. Even space is distributed democratically among faculty and students, with large common rooms where teachers and students work side by side.

At the iSchool, administrators said, the goal of democratic learning is to let students take control of their academic success. In many rooms, the teachers disappeared behind the students, who took center stage as they passionately debated the dangers of nuclear testing in India and Pakistan in a Model United Nations short course and as they designed their own symphonies on laptops in a short, intensive course called “Inside the Music.”

In contrast, Urban Academy founding director Ann Cook said democratic learning at her school is meant to engage students around social and political issues that affect them. Urban Academy’s hallways contained sculptures, murals, and photographs, but also news clippings about the school’s battle for a waiver from requiring Regents exams and a big banner across the entrance that declared “Hunter College Hands Off! Save Julia Richman Schools! Save Our Community!”

“What we’re looking for is to have obnoxious citizens come out of our school,” she said.

If the mornings showed the IDEA tour group what education looks like “with liberty,” the afternoons showed what it looks like with “justice for all.”

P.S. 28 kindergartners sharing their observations about leaves

At P.S. 28, principal Sadie Silver described her efforts to turn half of the school building into community space that includes a meeting room and space for nonprofit groups to offer a nursing program, support for foster care families, job training, and other services. How the implementation of wraparound services will trickle down from big ideas to classroom practice remains to be seen, she said. During a whirlwind tour of the school (bubbly student leaders counted to sixty in each classroom before tapping visitorson the arm, whispering “we have to go,” and skipping off to the next room) the IDEA group saw uniform-clad elementary-schoolers engaging in fairly traditional lessons about editing for capitalization, counting to five, and making observations about leaves.

“It’s not just about how to teach your kid reading, but about how to find an apartment in this economy, about how to find a job.” Silver said. “We couldn’t do what we wanted to do within the school without targeting the environment as a whole.”

Innovation Tour members getting a guided walk through Hunts Point

Tour members saw a different vision of whole-community improvement efforts at The Point, the last stop on the Innovation Tour. On Friday afternoon, the group’s airy brick and windowed building in Hunts Point was busy with students entering a Shakespeare program and community members working on their incubating business ventures. After a presentation about the area’s poverty, Point staff led a walking tour through the community, pointing out places of progress: new schools, green spaces, a cleaned-up waterfront.

The Point prides itself on giving community members the tools to improve their environment and their lives.

“It’s about power,” said Sharon De La Cruz, director of The Point’s A.C.T.I.O.N. program. “Not in a greedy or nasty way, but as in empowerment.”

As the tour concluded, participants reflected on what they liked about what they saw — the couches in Urban Academy’s hallways, the vision at P.S. 28 — and how they would take the lessons they learned back to their home communities.

“I didn’t imagine that there were so many people working on education and trying to improve their community and the youth,” Omar Soto, a social worker and coordinator for Nuestra Escuela, an alternative school in Puerto Rico, said through a translator. “I learned that there is tons of work to be done.”

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.