he said/he said

Principals union chief lambastes city's school closure strategy

Among the press releases that went flying after the city announced its first set of school closures earlier today, the one from principals union president Ernest Logan stood out for its stridency.

In a statement the length of a short essay, Logan decried school closures as “a losing strategy” that traumatizes needy students, shuts out educators, and prevents scrutiny of the city’s reform efforts. Adding eight months to mayoral control’s age, he said twice that the Bloomberg administration has had a decade to fix all schools but has not.

Nine of the 15 schools whose closures or truncations were announced today have opened since Mayor Bloomberg took control of the schools; one replaced a failing elementary school just three years ago. Logan suggested that at least two additional Bloomberg-started schools would show up on the second installment of the closure roster when it comes out tomorrow.

“The fact is that closure is an admission of failure by City Hall, whose weak or non-existent interventions amount to either a cynical statement of indifference to children of poverty or an inferiority complex about their own ability to come up with solutions,” Logan said.

The statement elicited a rebuttal from Chancellor Dennis Walcott, who called Logan’s statement “embarrassing” for the union.

“Real leadership is standing up and saying that we’re not going to leave students in failing schools,” Walcott said. “It’s embarrassing that the union representing the leaders of our schools — our principals — is more focused on making excuses and pointing fingers than on doing what is best for students. We hold all of our schools, new or old, to the same high standards.”

The policy got backup from Joe Williams, head of the nonprofit Democrats for Education Reform, which generally supports Bloomberg’s education policies. Williams called the practice of closing struggling schools and opening new ones to take their place is the mayor’s “crowning achievement.”

“These are schools that simply aren’t worthy of Gotham’s schoolchildren,” Williams said in a statement. “We applaud the mayor for resisting intense pressure to not rock the boat and make things as comfortable as possible for adults in the system, as our children are cast adrift.”

But in his statement, Williams did tread some common ground with Logan and other critics of the closures, including UFT President Michael Mulgrew and the nonprofit Coalition for Educational Justice.

“The mayor’s education legacy hangs in the balance here,” Williams said.

Here’s Logan’s statement in full:

Yesterday evening, Deputy Chancellor of Portfolio Planning Marc Sternberg announced to the press the pending closure of 25 more struggling schools. This is in addition to the 117 the DOE has already closed since Mayor Bloomberg took over the school system more than ten years ago.

Those opened under Bloomberg have been touted by Sternberg ‘as better than those they replaced.’  Tweed’s own failed schools number in the double digits, although the DOE sheepishly avoids making public an exact number. But in today’s and tomorrow’s round of closings alone, 11 schools were opened during the Bloomberg administration.

The NYC public school system is not a place for whimsical experiment where we open and close schools for students who have already been traumatized by previous school closings. Then, there is the tragedy of all the young people who have not been saved even briefly by the city’s new-school safety net, but have been turned away from new schools for reasons of poor academic achievement and sent to be warehoused in other low-performing schools slated for the scrapheap.

Bloomberg’s DOE has come up with a losing strategy for turning around low- performing schools, which are invariably attended by children of color from economically disadvantaged communities. That strategy includes rejecting most offers of collaboration from experienced educators and relying instead on theories hatched in ivy halls. The endgame of the strategy is to eliminate schools that the administration has had at least a decade to fix and to improve its data by creating new schools that won’t have data for as long as four years. The fact is that closure is an admission of failure by City Hall, whose weak or non-existent interventions amount to either a cynical statement of indifference to children of poverty or an inferiority complex about their own ability to come up with solutions.

The Bloomberg administration needs to take more responsibility, not less, for schools that are not doing well, rather than turning them over to private entities like EPOs or closing them and washing their hands of a deep-rooted problem that it has been unsuccessful in remedying.

CSA is mindful of Tweed’s lack of support for Principals and APs, how little it cares about the opinions of educators in the front lines and how the entire system of local superintendent support has been eviscerated so that control can be consolidated centrally.”

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.