strength in numbers

City plan to shrink Wadleigh draws vocal and official opposition

Ninth-grader Geronimo Miranda joins sixth-graders Ariyelle Ceasar, Tiane Jackson, Cheyanne Young and Nia Manerville in describing Wadleigh Middle School's positive qualities at a school truncation hearing Jan. 26.

A who’s who of elected officials and Harlem leaders turned out Thursday to defend the Wadleigh Secondary School of Performing Arts against the Department of Education’s plan to close its middle school.

About 200 parents, students, activists, and staff packed the school’s auditorium Thursday evening for a public hearing on the proposal. Just before, officials who included City Councilman Robert Jackson, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, State Sen. Bill Perkins, and Comptroller John Liu all held court in the packed lobby of the Harlem campus. Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and the city’s NAACP chief, Hazel Dukes, also spoke at the hearing.

They said the city was giving up on a neighborhood institution by moving to close Wadleigh’s middle school. Jackson promised to call Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Dennis Walcott today to air his opposition to the plan.

Wadleigh’s 440-student high school would remain open under the plan, as would another middle school in the building, Frederick Douglass Academy II, which narrowly escaped closure this year after earning an even lower progress report score than Wadleigh’s middle school. A charter school, Harlem Success Academy I, is set to move its middle school grades into the building, according to a plan the city set last year.

The charter school co-location plan drew quick and fierce fire during the hearing. Perkins, an outspoken critic of charter schools, said Harlem Success had a track record of an “antagonistic relationship” with the local community and should not be given more space.

Department of Education officials said they sought to close Wadleigh’s middle school not to make room for the charter school but simply because keeping it up and running is unsustainable. It has just 94 students and last year earned a D on the progress reports the city uses to judge schools.

“With a school that is performing at this level at this size, is it possible to make it successful?” asked Shael Polakow-Suransky, a deputy chancellor, during the hearing.

In response, shouts of “Yes” emanated from the audience, which frequently interjected through the five-hour-long hearing. At times, they chanted until officials were drowned out.

Anthony Klug, a teacher and the school’s union chapter leader, said the departure of a math coach, guidance counselor, and dean had caused the middle school’s performance dip last year. Restoring those resources would help turn the school around, he said.

He drew cheers when he told the DOE officials listening to the testimony, “Closing a school is not difficult to do. It’s assisting the school that’s difficult.”

Klug told me he believes the middle school’s closure would “significantly negatively impact, if not destroy,” the high school’s arts programs.

“We have eight arts and specialty rooms, and so basically the last two years they were trying to colocate a third school in the building, not recognizing that these arts rooms take more space than schools that don’t offer these programs,” he said. “Dance kids are going to need more than a 500-square-foot room. Shrinking our school is the first step to ending [that program].”

Polakow-Suransky said during the hearing the building had more than enough space for Wadleigh to share space with another school and also maintain its arts programs.

But closing the middle school could take a different toll on Wadleigh’s arts programs, by reducing the number of students prepared to participate in them in high school, people said at the hearing.

The comments developed a theme that supporters of another performing arts school, who included staff from Wadleigh, outlined at its closure hearing earlier this week. Closing arts schools that serve low-income students would cut off a rare option for those students, argued supporters of both Manhattan Theatre Lab High School and Wadleigh. The schools have a close relationship: In 2006 Evelyn Collins left her job as Wadleigh’s assistant principal for the arts to head Manhattan Theatre Lab.

A handful of middle and high school students were the first to speak at the hearing. Standing in a line on the performance stage, the students said the school’s performing arts focus draws neighborhood students like themselves.

“This is a visual arts school that is trying to make the arts better so we can fulfill our dreams,” said sixth-grader Tiane Jackson. “Do you really want to be responsible for crushing dreams?”

Hall, Wadleigh’s principal, did not speak during the hearing. But FDA II’s principal, Osei Owusu-Afriyie, went to bat for Wadleigh.

“We serve the same students, we serve the same community,” he said. “Our school has some of the same struggles that Wadleigh has. We are working tirelessly every day to make it better.”

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.