on the street

In three boroughs, students and parents react to closure news

At 15 schools across the city today, administrators who had only just found out that their schools were slated to close broke the bad news to parents, teachers, and students. We stopped by schools in three boroughs to see how community members were responding.

Jane Addams High School for Academic Careers

Jane Addams High School for Academic Careers

Students at Jane Addams heard about the closure announcement either from their eighth-period teachers or from letters distributed by staff and DOE officials who were at the school before the 2:20 p.m. dismissal.

A school staff member said teachers were staying late to meet with administrators and union officials but that few were surprised by today’s news.

“We had a meeting a month earlier, so we were kind of expecting it.” she said, referring to the early engagement meetings the DOE has held at each of the 47 schools it considered for closure.

Since then, Jane Addams has been mired in a massive crediting scandal, first reported by the Daily News, that could threaten graduation for hundreds of students.

Students today said they were worried how the closure decision would affect their credits. But they were divided about whether the school deserved its fate.

“We don’t learn in our school. We barely do anything,” said ninth-grader Myasia Irons. “We don’t have Spanish classes, we don’t have health classes. I might transfer.”

But a sophomore said he thought Jane Addams’s problems wouldn’t be solved by closing its doors.

“I believe it’s only failing because when they closed the other big schools in the zone they started sending the kids here,” he said, echoing a frequent critique of school closures.

And students had good things to say about the school’s under-fire principal, Sharron Smalls. Senior Tanay Carr said Smalls let her stay in the principal’s office to avoid fights, even after she was suspended several times. Another student told GothamSchools, “She’s like a mother to me.” And a ninth-grader said emphatically, “She’s a good principal. Leave her alone!”

Manhattan Theatre Lab High School

Most students pouring out of the Martin Luther King campus near Lincoln Center had no idea that one of the six schools in the building had been slated for closure. But students from Manhattan Theatre Lab, housed in the basement, said they were told during an eighth-period, whole-school meeting that school might be closed and a final decision would be made in February.

“It’s kind of a shocker,” said a ninth-grader. “This is my first year at this school and it’s surprising that they’re talking about it being shut down.”

Under the watchful eye of a dean who asked us to leave the campus, a senior told GothamSchools that she thought the reason for closure might be that it’s hard for people to graduate on time.

“Everyone is doing what they’re supposed to be doing and it’s not fair,” the senior said.

Legacy Integrated High School

Long after school hours had ended, students continued to straggle out of Legacy’s building near Union Square in Manhattan. They reported that they had been called into an assembly and told that the school would close.

Alicia Solis, a ninth-grader, said she was happy with the school because she thought she was getting the classes she needed to advance and because there is little fighting.

“We’re all doing everything we’re supposed to,” she said, surprised that the school’s efforts had been identified as falling short.

P.S. 161, The Crown School

Once a top choice for Crown Heights families, P.S. 161 has had a rough patch in recent years, posting low progress report scores. Today, the DOE announced that it would cut the middle school grades but leave the elementary school open.

Parents of elementary school students said they didn’t know how the middle school performed.

“Since my children aren’t there yet, I’m not sure what kind school it is,” said Katherine Seward, who has children in kindergarten and third grade.

But she said she was aware that both schools had been struggling.

“We can do more to improve,” Seward said.

Another elementary school parent, who declined to give her name, said she was not concerned the middle school was closing.

“I doubt I’ll even be living in New York by the time he’s in middle school,” the mother said. She said she planned to move in part because the city is too expensive and in part because she was looking for better schools.

 

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.