public comment

Parents demand stronger role at council hearing on engagement

As today’s City Council hearing on parent engagement wore into its third hour, parents grew agitated that they had yet to deliver their testimony.

After listening to chancellor Dennis Walcott and executive director for family and community engagement, Jesse Mojica, discuss parent engagement with council members for hours, the parents were ready to contribute, but the meeting was scheduled to end at one.

“It’s really unfair that this wasn’t mostly parent voices,” Michelle Lipkin, P.S. 199’s PTA president, said when she took the mic. “There’s a real disconnect between the definition of parent engagement for parents and the definition of parent engagement for the department of education.”

That disconnect was made clear as parents and council members agreed that the Department of Education can engage parents all they want, but without power, the engagement is all for naught.

“There’s no big secret in what gets parents involved,” Councilman Charles Barron said. “It’s when parents actually have power.” He suggested giving parents a say over curriculum, principal hiring, and budget.

Others agreed and noted that the Panel for Education Policy, the Community Education Councils, and the school closure procedures give only the guise of engagement.

“The parents need power through legislation. Not engagement, not feedback, not any of those pretty words. We need a vote on the PEP,” Christine Annechino, president of CEC 3, testified. “We have no voice. We have no power.”

Concerns raised by council members and parents during the meeting included the cut of 57 parent coordinators earlier this year, the accountability and assessment of parent coordinators, the lack of communication about toxic school environments, and the relocation of last night’s PEP meeting. While the tone was civil throughout, the issues always came back to the fact that parents don’t just want to be kept abreast of issues in their child’s school, they want to have the power to effect change.

Similarly, Pamela Johnson, president of CEC 11, questioned, “Where does the feedback go? It looks like you’re engaging us, but there isn’t any return from the DOE.”

Walcott has made parent engagement a priority since assuming his post in April. In June he held a meeting for parents on the Common Core standards, he delivered a policy speech on the topic during “Parents as Partners” week earlier this fall, and he has been making the rounds of CEC meetings.

He has also rejiggered the parent engagement initiative within Tweed to fit with his vision. What was the Office of Parent Engagement in 2002, the Office of Family Engagement and Advocacy in 2007, and the Office of Family Information and Action in 2010, is now the Division of Family and Community Engagement (DFACE).

Wolcott tapped Mojica, a Bronx parent of two, for the position in July. At today’s meeting, when council members pushed about the significance of this new iteration, Mojica said changes were being made to align the work of his division more closely with the structure of the network system. He also said the new moniker reflects his goal to engage the community at large.

Mojica’s office is staffed my 95 people, 20 of whom work specifically for DFACE initiatives such as providing support for Parent Associations, training parent coordinators, and working on the Parent Academy, which is planned to launch in September. The budget for DFACE proper is 8 million dollars; the budget for all parent-related initiatives is 105 million.

Early in the meeting, councilman Robert Jackson, chair of the education committee, testified that he was pleased with the DOE’s efforts and with the appointment of Mojica but that there was still “skepticism of DOE motives and efforts around parent and community engagement.” He cited the hazy content of the DOE’s web Site, which omits certain information about DFACE and the CEC. He also cited the marginalization of parents in important decisions about charter schools and co-locations.

Wolcott spoke off-the-cuff, mainly responding to Jackson’s concerns. But in his written testimony he shared his intent to “do a better job involving our parents and families.” He committed to improving the process of CEC elections – which were poorly planned and mismanaged last year – and to offering varied ways for parents to become involved on all levels.

“The work to get our students ready for college and careers must involve not only teachers and principals, but students and families as well. Our schools can’t do it alone,” he wrote.

While Walcott brings in a new vision of what family engagement could look like, it is unlikely under mayoral control that parents will get the leverage they want to effect change.

“Their vision of what parent engagement should be is at total odds with ours,” Jim Devor, president of CEC 15. “Powerful people get what they want no matter how deep, broad, or reasoned the communities opposition might be.”

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.