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Dominican families balance schooling with extended trips home

Gregorio Luperon High School serves newcomer students, most of whom come from the Dominican Republic.

It begins in early December. Students pop into the attendance office at Gregorio Luperon High School for Science and Mathematics brandishing plane tickets like doctor’s notes. Then the absences start, weeks before the winter break begins. And then comes the rolling return of students, stretching to the waning days of January.

The annual ritual that takes place at Gregorio Luperon also plays out in other pockets of the city that, like Washington Heights, have many students from the Dominican Republic.

Extended mid-year absences are by no means limited to Dominican students: The New York Times reported this week about post-vacation enrollment flux at Chinatown schools. But educators and community organizations say the phenomenon is especially pronounced at schools with many families from the Dominican Republic — and that the impact can be significant.

About 15 Luperon students missed some amount of school this December and January because they were in the Dominican Republic, according to Luperon’s attendance teacher, and two still hadn’t returned last week.

“They want to see their families back home, especially if they haven’t seen them in a long time,” said Mireya De La Rosa, an assistant principal at Gregorio Luperon who immigrated from the Dominican Republic herself.

Gregorio Luperon — a bilingual school that accepts recent immigrants from Latin America, the majority of whom are Dominican — has made efforts to curb the practice. Teachers broach the issue with families during orientation by telling them that it is not an acceptable for students to miss chunks of school, then remind students in the weeks before winter break about the consequences of missing school. Teachers are discouraged from doling out make-up work to students, so there are real consequences for leaving the country.

Now, only a “micro-, micro-minority” of Luperon families pull their children from school to return home over the holiday season, De La Rosa said.

But, she added, “For us, even five kids is a problem, because those five kids won’t do well when they come back and take the finals.”

Younger children don’t have final exams to grapple with in January, but they still lose out by missing a few days of school, said David Grisevich, an assistant principal at P.S. 152 in Washington Heights.

At P.S. 152, the scattered extended absences during the winter are like “a nagging toothache” for teachers, Grisevich said.

De La Rosa and Grisevich both suggested that the long vacations happen because young, working-class families try to squeeze the most out of a plane ticket by booking outside of peak travel days.

But the explanation for the phenomenon is more complex than just finances.

Joshua Ceballos and Jeyco Consepcion, eighth-graders at the Mirabal Sisters Campus, a Washington Heights building with three middle schools, both missed several days of school this year to spend extended time with their families in the Dominican Republic, Ceballas returning mid-January, Consepcion returning last Monday.

The boys each said that spending time with family was the primary purpose of his trip. “Everybody is there,” Consepcion said. “It’s like home.”

“Over there, it’s better. It’s more active, kids spend their time outside,” Ceballos said. He added that the fresh food is another draw: “Over here the food is fake. Over there, I go with my grandpa to the farm and we get the beans and corn and then my grandma cooks it.”

The boys also explained that schools are different in the Dominican Republic. There, schools hold four-hour shifts in the morning, afternoon, and evening from which students can choose.

Shondel Nero, an associate professor at New York University who directs NYU’s program in multilingual and multicultural studies, explained that in part because of “shift” schooling, missing school is generally not seen as a major problem in the Dominican Republic.

Religion also plays a role, said Nero, who facilitates a study abroad program in the Dominican Republic. Because most Dominicans are “staunch Catholics,” they celebrate holidays well into the month of January, she said. After Christmas and New Years, there are El Dia de los Reyes on Jan. 6 and Our Lady of Altagracia Day Jan. 21.

“Culturally speaking, family and faith are two of the most important things to Dominicans. Sometimes to the detriment of education,” Nero wrote.

Vianca Caceras, a mother of three who works at Turissa Travel in Washington Heights, has pulled her two oldest children out of their Bronx elementary school in the past for a lengthy trip back home. Many of her family members – including her youngest child – live in the Dominican Republic, and she said that it was worth the money and time to travel home with her children.

“The children have 180 days in school, so five days with their family is not a big deal. The family makes sure that the child grows up healthy. It’s important,” Caceras said.

“It’s difficult because two things are important,” she added. “Seeing my other family and my country and making sure that my babies go to school.”

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.