Nine things you need to know about last night's PEP meeting

Nine takeaways from last night’s raucous Panel for Educational Policy meeting, for those who don’t have time for 5,000-plus words and minute-to-minute updates:

1. The city’s agenda was unsurprisingly approved. But the bloc of borough presidents’ appointees has hardened into constant opposition. Last year, some borough presidents’ appointees voted to support at least a few of the proposed phaseouts. Even Patrick Sullivan, the appointee of Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, cast a rare “yes” vote on the city’s proposal to close the high school grades of Frederick Douglass Academy III in the South Bronx.

That didn’t happen last night. Sullivan, Gbubemi Okotieuro of Brooklyn, Wilfredo Pagan of the Bronx, and Dmytryo Fedkowskj of Queens voted against every single closure proposal before them. Sullivan and Pagan even abstained on two votes for proposals to grow schools rather than shrink them. And in a surprising move, Diane Peruggia, the appointee of Staten Island’s conservative borough president, James Molinaro, cast a “no” vote — against the first-ever closure of a Staten Island school, P.S. 14.

Only one plan won unanimous support: the plan to expand Brooklyn’s P.S. 8 to include a middle school, something parents in Brooklyn Heights had been asking for for years.

2. Protesters were divided on strategy and the teachers union’s lost out. Three different groups planned protests and two of them faced off outside and inside Brooklyn Tech. Protesters affiliated with the Occupy movement, many with no connection to the city schools, sustained a “people’s mic” for hours, shouting over official speakers and panel members.They even tried to prevent others from testifying and as their numbers dwindled, their protest devolved into an expletive-laden series of personal attacks. Their goal — ultimately unsuccessful — was to shut the meeting down.

The UFT, on the other hand, had rented space at nearby P.S. 20 to hold an alternate meeting, the “People’s PEP.” The idea was to march from Brooklyn Tech to P.S. 20 instead of heading inside for the city’s meeting — a plan that caused a teacher activist to argue strategy with a union vice president outside the meeting, which can be seen in this video.

Citing police intervention, the union aborted its march almost immediately, and instead the union members were shepherded into the nosebleed section of the auditorium where seats were remaining.

The confusion cost at least some people a chance to speak on the official record:

There’s Donna Hamlet, president of the parent association at Far Rockaway’s P.S. 215, which could close, tells Jessica that she rode a UFT-sponsored bus from Far Rockaway to Fort Greene. When she received a laminated pass to speak at the “People’s PEP,” the alternate meeting the union had planned, she thought she had signed up to speak in the regular meeting. By the time the march was cancelled, the PEP’s official sign-in list was closed.

3. The protest was largely one-sided. In the past, charter school advocates had staged their own rallies in favor of charter schools during the meetings, making for some tense confrontations and, occasionally, striking reconciliations. But last night, without charter school co-locations on the agenda and with massive protests planned, most defenders of the mayor’s agenda stayed home.

A notable exception was a group of about 30 parents, most with children in charter schools, who stood silently in the back and held up signs that said “Better Schools Now!” Many of them testified as well, defending the city’s decision to close low-performing schools while in most cases carefully avoiding “pro-charter” language. They repeatedly said that they were speaking out because they believed quality schools should be available to every student, and that closing struggling schools was the way to do it.

4. Activists aren’t the only ones with volume in their arsenal. The Department of Education piped the official proceedings through a robust amplification system that made speakers’ voices audible over the shouting. Panel members were also supplied with headphones that channeled official testimony right into their ears. Most of them wore the headphones during the peak of protest, and Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky barely took his off all night.

5. More resistance doesn’t mean more time debating the issues. Last night’s meeting was the shortest panel vote on closures since the state started requiring the panel to sign off on closures in 2010. That year, the vote on 22 school closures took place close to 4 a.m. In 2011, the city divided the 25 closure votes over two meetings in the same week: One lasted until nearly 3 a.m. and the other stretched past 1 a.m. By midnight last night, the votes were complete and the auditorium had been cleared. The public comment period, which in the past has made up the bulk of the meeting, attracted only 125 speaker sign-ups and lasted only until a little after 9 p.m.

One reason for the shorter public comment period is that protesters affiliated with the Occupy movement actively dissuaded people from using the city’s official speaker system. Another reason is that many people affiliated with the UFT did not get a chance to sign up. Panel member Patrick Sullivan offered a third suggestion: “I think they’ve kind of given up on public comment because they know everything is decided,” he said as the panel began its discussion.

6. Chancellor Dennis Walcott was on good behavior, but it didn’t win him any friends. Last night was Walcott’s first panel vote on closures since becoming chancellor last April. His predecessor, Cathie Black, sometimes needled parents during public hearings (though not at last year’s closure votes, where she barely opened her mouth). Her predecessor, longtime chancellor Joel Klein, spent much of panel meetings typing on his BlackBerry, to attendees’ frequent chagrin.

Walcott, who has championed civility in education debates, gazed intently at the speakers and appeared to be listening, if dispassionately.

“I understand the emotions involved,” Walcott told reporters after the meeting’s conclusion. “But sometimes we have to make tough choices that people find unpopular.’”

7. A large police presence provided a chilling effect and, at times, confusion. Half a dozen police vans were parked outside Brooklyn Tech well before any protesters arrived, and the school’s lobby was filled with officers all night. At one point, shortly after 8 p.m., a large number of protesters left the auditorium and entered the lobby — where the officers tried to bar them from reentering the meeting, in violation of city policy and the state’s open meetings law.

Jessica reported at around 8:15 p.m.:

After school safety agents try to stop the group from reentering the auditorium, the chant turns to, “Let us in!”

The protest in the lobby grows rowdier. Jessica reports that the floor is even shaking.

Afterwards, the police presence ramped up inside the auditorium, too. From 8:40 p.m.:

After leaving for about 20 minutes to occupy the lobby, protesters have returned to the auditorium with an invigorated energy. The police presence is stepping up its intervention, too: Geoff reports that about two dozen armed officers have formed a barricade between the media pit and the front-row seats, where the protesters begin.

8. For some people, the debate was anything but ideological. Much of the protest took aim at the format of the meeting and the way the Bloomberg administration formats and executes school policies. But for some attendees — families caught in the closure crosshairs — the bottom line came down to where their children would attend school in September.

Here’s just one example:

After her son was bullied at KAPPA VII last fall, Eleanor Pettway testified, the city offered him a transfer to the Academy of Business and Community Development, where he is in the sixth grade. The city removed KAPPA VII from the closure list on Wednesday (along with Wadleigh Secondary School for Performing and Visual Arts) but ABCD could be closed tonight. Unlike the other schools on the chopping block, ABCD would not phase out but instead would close at the end of the year.

“I asked the DOE to transfer my son for safety and he was transferred to ABCD. Now it’s being closed,” Pettway said. “It’s not fair. He doesn’t deserve that.”

Pettway said her son is “the happiest he’s been since he left elementary school” and hasn’t had any problems with bullying at ABCD.

9. The following phase-outs and co-locations were approved:

These schools will be phased out:
Samuel Gompers Career and Technical Education High School, Bronx
Gateway School for Environmental Research and Technology, Bronx
Jane Addams High School for Academic Careers, Bronx
Grace Dodge Career and Technical Education High School, Bronx
Aspire Preparatory Middle School, Bronx
Satellite Three Middle School, Brooklyn
P.S. 019 Roberto Clemente, Brooklyn
P.S. 022, Brooklyn
International Arts Business School, Brooklyn
Middle School for the Arts, Brooklyn
General D. Chappie James Elementary School of Science, Brooklyn
The Anna Gonzalez Community School, Brooklyn
Legacy School for International Studies, Manhattan
Washington Irving High School, Manhattan
Manhattan Theatre Lab High School, Manhattan
P.S. 215 Lucretia Mott, Queens
P.S. 14 Cornelius Vanderbilt, Staten Island

This school will close in June:
Academy of Business and Community Development, Brooklyn

These secondary schools will have their middle grades phase out:
Academy of Scholarship and Entrepreneurship, Bronx
Frederick Douglass Academy IV Secondary School, Brooklyn
P.S. 298 Dr. Betty Shabazz, Brooklyn
Brooklyn Collegiate: A College Board School, Brooklyn

These co-locations will move forward: 
New high school 08X561 on the Adlai Stevenson Campus, Bronx
New high school 10X565 at Grace Dodge High School, Bronx
New middle school 11X556 in Aspire Prep’s building, Bronx
P.S. 8’s middle school on the George Westinghouse Campus, Brooklyn
New middle school 13K351 in Satellite III’s building, Brooklyn
New school P.S. 414 in P.S. 19’s building, Brooklyn
New middle school 16K681 in Frederick Douglass Academy IV’s building, Brooklyn
New high school 17K745 on the Wingate Campus, Brooklyn
New middle school 17K722 in Middle School of the Arts’s building, Brooklyn
New middle school 23K423 in P.S. 298’s building, Brooklyn
New school P.S. 446 in the Chappie schools building, Brooklyn
New middle school 32K562 in the Anna Gonzalez Community School’s building, Brooklyn
New high school 02M534 in Legacy School for Integrated Studies’ building, Manhattan
The Academy for Software Engineering in the Washington Irving campus, Manhattan
New high school 02M533 in the Washington Irving campus, Manhattan
Special Music School’s middle school on the Martin Luther King Campus, Manhattan
New school 27Q362 in P.S. 215’s building, Queens
New school 31R078 in P.S. 14’s building, Staten Island

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.