And then there were three

At Columbus, students and staff grapple with looming closure

Lisa Fuentes, principal of Christopher Columbus High School in the East Bronx, at work in her first floor office.

“How many of you plan to go to tutoring?” Lisa Fuentes asked the crowd of Christopher Columbus High School seniors trickling into the first floor auditorium on a recent morning.

As she surveyed the thin show of hands, her voice shook. “Maybe 10? So I put thousands of dollars aside so you can have tutoring, and a handful of you are attending?”

“If you don’t start taking this seriously, this is going to be the worst graduating class of the entire history of Columbus,” she said.

In her nine years as Columbus’s principal, Fuentes has had countless, similarly tough conversations with her senior classes to remind them about uncompleted college applications, looming Regents exams, and missing course credits.

But she said she feels even more urgency this year, because she knows she is running out of time to reach the many students who are failing courses, missing credits, and chronically late to school.

That’s because this year’s crop of seniors is the third-to-last that will ever graduate from Columbus. The school is in the process of being closed because of its low performance, despite valiant efforts to fend off the city’s decision that included hearings, lawsuits, and two attempts at charter school conversion. This year, no new ninth-graders enrolled, and Columbus is scheduled to graduate its last students in 2014. It is now just one of seven schools sharing space in the four-story stone building that once housed it alone.

Fuentes and other teachers said they are cautious not to let the impending closure overshadow instruction. But students say they miss the ninth-grade teachers who no longer have jobs at Columbus, and on several occasions teachers have stepped into Fuentes’s office to cry.

“A lot of my good good teachers have left,” she said. “I hate the term jump ship, because of Columbus … But they told me they didn’t want to wait until the end and risk going into the Absent Teacher Reserve pool,” where teachers who have lost their jobs rove from school to school as substitutes.

Several teachers say they passed up positions at other schools in order to stay at Columbus during its phaseout. Edward Barone, who teaches chemistry, is the most junior science teacher on the staff and expects to be cut loose at the end of the school year.

“I guess I’m concerned about it, but I’m doing the job the best I can,” he said. “I had an opportunity to move to a couple of the small schools in the building. But I felt like I was still good for Columbus. I hope I’m not making the wrong decision.”

Students, too, say they have mixed feelings about sticking by as Columbus turns into a shell of its former self.

Jesse Joseph, 16, a junior, said he came to Columbus to follow in the footsteps of two older brothers. But he said he has been dismayed to see several longtime teachers leave, including Steve Bonica, an earth science teacher who went to Bronxdale High School on the building’s third floor because Bronxdale would have a ninth grade and Columbus would not.

“The teachers I have classes with today say they might not be here, like Mr. Barone,” Joseph added.

He said he would transfer to another school if he could. But he said Columbus’s guidance counselors dissuaded him because the process of transferring would be time consuming, and he might only have the option to transfer to another large, low-performing school.

Zorana Vulevic, 16, has only been at Columbus for two and a half years but is taking extra classes this year so she can graduate in 2012. “This is not a real high school education,” she said. “Health and government had substitutes because the teachers were excessed.”

In its heyday, Columbus was able to offer regular and advanced-placement core subjects and electives in cooking, health, and French. By 2010, the school had lost those electives, along with Advanced Placement science courses, English, math, and language programs. This year, students who want to take advanced courses such as physics must “go upstairs” — shorthand for enrolling in classes offered by other schools at the Columbus campus.

That’s not an option for most students. Fuentes said many of Columbus’s 760 remaining students are not on track to graduate in four years, because of factors such learning disabilities, homelessness, or criminal backgrounds.

Two-third of Columbus students are eligible to receive free or reduced lunch, one quarter require special education services, and nearly 20 percent are considered English language learners.

Those proportions are sure to climb as the school continues to accept needy students, even as it grows closer to its final days.  This year, nearly 150 students were assigned to the school after classes started. Over-the-counter students are often some of the hardest to teach; many are English language learners or come from low-income families without permanent homes; some arrived in New York City just weeks before the start of school after long interruptions in their formal schooling.

Many principals balk at having their enrollments swollen by hard-to-educate students, but Fuentes said she was eager to accept them, both because they brought with them extra funding and also because she sees Columbus as a refuge for needy students.

“I’m a fool,” she said. “I take them all.”

Barone, who was one of the teachers involved in organizing the school community to defense Columbus, said the school’s closure would take away a vital opportunity for over-the-counter enrollees, particularly new immigrants, to find faculty responsive to their needs.

“We made so much progress with ways to approach this population of students. For them to be throwing that out with the bathwater is a real shame,” he said.

Fuentes said the metrics the city used when deciding that Columbus was too weak to survive didn’t capture many of the school’s successes.

“We believe in our kids and the progress they’re capable of making,” she said. “We really believed we could be successful, with the staff we had.”

Now, as the school and its staff dwindles, some remaining teachers are, like Barone, digging in.

“I feel like we work just as hard as we’ve always worked,” said Kanika Smith, who teaches AP English. “We tell the students, the school is closing, but you’re not. I’m also the coach of the cheer, step and dance team, and the senior adviser, so my goal is to keep the spirit going.”

With 10 years of experience at the school, Smith is one of its least senior teachers, and she expects to be excessed in June. But she is deferring the job hunt until then, she said, both out of a desire to defer the inevitable and out of dedication to her students.

“This building has been ‘closing’ for years,” she said. “I haven’t run away yet.”

But Vulevic, who is taking a leadership elective reserved for the school’s highest-performing students, said most students had set aside a fervor to fight for survival in favor of apathy.

“There’s not much we can do anymore,” she said. “It’s 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.