booting up

Software-themed school aims to replicate Stuy curriculum for all

Stuyvesant High School computer science teacher Mike Zamansky describes a mathematical problem solving tool to students.

In Room 307 of Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High School, 23 students spent a recent afternoon copying tables and number trees representing a mathematical problem-solving technique used in graphic design computer software.

The students, who all won admission to Stuyvesant by posting top scores on an entrance exam, listened raptly as their teacher, Mike Zamansky, walked them through the complex algorithm behind “seam-carving,” a process used in resizing images. Then Zamansky checked to make sure they understood.

“No problem? Seems reasonable? or ‘Huh’?” he asked, offering students the chance to signal by a show of thumbs whether they understood or needed more help. No one pointed a thumb down.

Zamansky has been teaching computer science since 1995, through a program he designed for students to follow from sophomore to senior year. Stuyvesant’s program is the only rigorous computer science sequence in the city’s public schools and one of the few in the country.

Now it is the inspiration behind a new city high school that aims to change that.

Founded by an influential venture capitalist with deep ties to the technology industry and a young principal fresh from the city’s training program, the Academy for Software Engineering will be the city’s first school to focus on software engineering. The goal is to extend the approach of Zamansky’s classes — which teach problem-solving, network communications, and programming language literacy — to any student in the city, even if they can’t make the cut for Stuyvesant or don’t even have a computer at home.

Mayor Bloomberg championed the school in his January State of the City Address, and the Panel for Educational Policy last month signed off plans for it to open inside Union Square’s Washington Irving High School, which is set to close because of poor performance.

AFSE will admit students through a “limited unscreened” process, meaning that any student in the city can apply, and the only criterion the school can use to rank them is whether they showed interest by attending a high school fair or information session. The open-door policy means some students who enroll could live in homes without computers or an internet connection.

Making computer science available to anyone who is interested been part of the plan since the school’s earliest days as a figment of Fred Wilson’s imagination.

Wilson, one of AFSE’s founders and its prime fundraiser, reached out to Zamansky in 2008 after readers of Wilson’s popular venture capitalism blog who had graduated from Stuyvesant praised the teacher for setting them up for careers in software engineering. Wilson had no background in education but wanted to learn more about how the program worked and whether it could be replicated outside of the city’s most selective high schools.

“One of the questions I asked him was, why isn’t more of this happening across the school system?” Wilson said. “There’s fear that this stuff is really, really hard and that you need to be like an elite student to take it.”

Zamansky was intrigued but skeptical that a diverse group of 14-year-olds, including those from low-income or non-English speaking backgrounds, could be taught in four years how to create computer software at a level that would make them employable in the city’s burgeoning technology sector.

“If the goal is to make Google-quality engineers, I graduate Google-quality engineers. And starting with raw material that is ahead of grade level has a lot to do with it,” Zamansky said. “But a group of programmers who are gainfully employed? That’s a much more realistic goal.”

Wilson said he would hear that skepticism echoed in the conversations that followed with donors, educators, and Department of Education officials. But he said AFSE would upend the notion that only top students can learn challenging subjects.

“They’re in effect creating quasi-private schools, and that’s not nearly as ambitious as what we’re trying to do,” Wilson said about the city’s specialized high schools. “Rightly, a lot of principals feel like, ‘I can’t just take the Stuy curriculum and dump that on my kids.’ But we can show people how to do it. If we can do this, we will have a curriculum that can be rolled out citywide.”

Wilson said he also got raised eyebrows when he first approached city officials with the idea for the school three years ago. But he got the chance to convince them last year, when he met with Josh Thomases and Gregg Betheil, top Department of Education deputies, just as the city was beginning to focus on aligning career and technical education programs with expanding job markets. They said he had the department’s support but would need to raise funds to pay for a principal, program manager, and teacher training sessions well in advance of the school’s opening, according to Wilson. He would also need to form an advisory board to develop the curriculum, he said.

Wilson said the school’s startup costs have been steeper than for most schools because of its unusual focus. He would not share the amount of funding the school required but said he had met the fundraising goals with the help of an advisory board of fellow industry leaders, including employees of Google, Facebook and eBay; computer science educators; and a newly hired principal, Seung Yu.

Yu, selected last month to be the school’s founding principal, said he is excited about the prospect of introducing computer science and software engineering lessons to students from a range of skill levels — but he knows the challenge will be steep. A participant in the city’s Leadership Academy Aspiring Principals Program, Yu is being mentored by Rashid Davis, who runs Pathways to Technology Early College High School, a technology-focused high school that opened in 2011.

“I do recognize there will be quite a few students who come in with low level skills,” Yu said. “This is why we’re a small school. There’s beauty in that, being limited unscreened. We will have to look at what those students need in order to be successful.”

The school aims to enroll about 108 new students each year and ultimately max out with an enrollment of 432.

Zamansky, who has participated in the advisory board’s meetings, told me he supports their goals but remains wary of the small school model. He argued that students’ potentially widely varied abilities might call for more differentiated instruction than a small school could hope to offer.

“I think you can take any population and move it forward. But it will be very difficult to give meaningful instruction unless the size is sufficient,” he said.

Zamansky said he would like to see the DOE start by investing resources in expanded computer science offerings at other schools for gifted students, such as the Bronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Technical High School. If there were a critical mass of educators teaching high-level students, he said, teachers at settings like AFSE would have more colleagues to draw on for support.

But Zamansky also said he is frustrated by what he sees as a the lack of support to computer science instructors within the Department of Education and at Stuyvesant. One of the merits of starting fresh, he said, would be the ability to hire a staff committed to the computer sciences, which he cannot do as the unofficial program coordinator at his school.

AFSE’s structure and curriculum will largely mirror that of other recently opened small high schools, according to Yu. It will still offer English, history and other core courses, in addition to one or two computer science classes per year. The goal is for students to graduate able to study computer science in college, take entry-level software engineering jobs, or forgo software engineering entirely.

Exactly how computer science will be integrated into the traditional curriculum at AFSE is an open question that the advisory board plans to tackle in the coming months, according to Wilson and Yu. Science and math should be easy, Wilson said, but English and social studies could be less intuitive.

Because the school is beginning with just a ninth grade, it will need only one or two teachers with computer science backgrounds in the first year, Wilson and Yu said. Wilson said he is already receiving inquiries from public school teachers who are interested in computer science and software engineers working in the industry, who have seen the school’s vigorous promotions on technology blogs.

To drum up interest among students, Wilson and Seung have invited working software engineers to stand at their booth at a citywide fair for students who are still looking for a high school this weekend. Later this month, they will hold “open house” information sessions at the city headquarters of Google and New York University. Knowing software engineering could be a tougher sell for female students, Wilson said he is planning to ask female engineers to tout the school.

Wilson said the technology community’s eagerness to support AFSE reflects an awareness of the untapped potential of the city’s students, who he hopes will be set on a path to high-paying jobs at well-known tech companies.

“Software engineering is one of the — if not the — most in-demand job in the country right now,” Wilson said. “Every single one of these companies … they get frustrated that they can’t hire as fast as they want in New York City, so they start opening offices elsewhere. It would be really amazing if we could have our own kids growing up here become those software engineers.”

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.