school closure season

Dozens of teachers, students defend Irving at closure hearing

Parent Gail Wright speaks at Washington Irving High School's closure hearing.

Elected officials who turned out in droves to defend a Harlem school against closure last week stayed home Tuesday night from another century-old Manhattan school also facing the ax.

The city spared Wadleigh Secondary School for Performing Arts from closure in favor of a plan to scrap just its middle school grades, but droves of elected local and state officials and advocacy groups packed the school auditorium in protest anyway during its hearing last week.

There was no such fanfare at Irving, which would phase out completely under the city’s plan, during its closure hearing Tuesday. Instead, just one city councilwoman, Rosie Mendez, joined dozens of Irving teachers, parents, and students in criticizing the Department of Education’s closure proposal.

Over the course of the four-hour-long closure hearing, speaker after speaker explained — as they did during a December rally — that Irving enrolls high-needs, low-income students who are the toughest in the system to serve.

They also said the school’s veteran staff and Principal Bernardo Ascona have remained dedicated to their students despite the school’s uncertain future. This fall, the city reassigned the school from one federally funded improvement model to another, known as “transformation,” then abandoned the plans altogether in December.

A Department of Education official, Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky, said the city had decided keeping Irving open for at least another three years, as the federal School Improvement Grants program required, would have been a disservice to students. The city plans to open two new schools, including one that focuses on software development, in the building this fall to accompany three small schools already open there.

“It is just not true that if you have high-needs kids you cannot succeed,” Polakow-Suransky said. “In a school that is struggling, a culture develops that exists in the school that comes from teachers, students, and administration, where the expectation is that students are not able to achieve.”

The suggestion that Irving’s teachers have low expectations for their students prompted teachers in the audience to shout, “That’s not true. We never said that.” Audience members shouted over Polakow-Suransky throughout the meeting, at one point even calling for his resignation.

Students and parents testified that the school had set them on the path to college and that Ascona, who became principal in 2007, was laying a foundation for the school to improve.

“This man has not just been a principal, he’s been a father to some of these kids,” said Gail Wright, whose daughter is a senior. “They’re telling these children that they matter here.”

Devon Phillip, a senior taking classes in the college-prep International Baccalaureate program, said Irving’s teachers helped him improve his writing and speaking skills. “When you close the school, you take that experience away from me,” he said.

Ishmael Green, a senior from Brooklyn who was placed in Irving when he moved to the city for ninth grade, said the school has pushed him toward graduation and college, despite circumstances that led him to finish high school living on his own.

“It’s all thanks to the great teachers,” he said. “Please let them stay here.”

And teachers said the school’s constantly changing status has eroded their faith in the city’s ability to judge the school’s capacity to improve.

“We are asking the DOE to look at the whole picture. Our students need support from teachers, but also from tutors, social workers, mentors, guidance counselors and other professionals because their lives are extremely difficult,” said Marian Burnbaum, a social studies teacher and School Leadership Team representative. “Our school can improve the performance with the right kind of supports. The transformation model funding was going to do that for us.”

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.