New sheriffs in town

Students bring anti-turnaround message to PEP members

Wassem Albakka, a sophomore from Grady High School, tapes a poster of PEP member Linda Bryant to a fence near her Upper East Side office building.

When student protesters came knocking on the front door of Eduardo Martí’s office building this afternoon, the mayoral appointee to the Panel for Education Policy wasn’t there. The same was true when they tried the offices of fellow appointees Linda Bryant and Judy Bergtraum.

But the band of eight students, all from high schools the city has put up for closure, still used chants, drumming, and “wanted” posters with the panelists faces on them to leave them a message: that they should not vote to close their schools.

A City University of New York official blocked the students from entering Martí’s office on East 80th Street shortly before 3 p.m. But a receptionist listened patiently by phone as Diana Rodriguez, a senior at Grover Cleveland High School, read off a list of “crimes he is wanted for”:

“One, violation of civil rights: He approved 23 school closing affecting 10,000 students. He approved countless policies that have resulted in only 13 percent of Black and Latino students graduating ready for college,” she said. “Two, breach of the public trust: He rubber stamped all of Mayor Bloomberg’s proposals, against the will of parents, students and communities. Three, conflict of interest: He received funds from the mayor’s administration while holding public office.”

Students from Cleveland and Grady, which the city wants to close using the controversial turnaround school reform model this year, were later joined by a student and parent from Legacy High School for Integrated Studies, a small Union Square high school the PEP voted to close this winter.

The students, who were organized by the advocacy group Alliance for Quality Education, said they had two main reasons for protesting: solidarity with the schools that the PEP has already voted to close, and a desire to protect their schools from the turnaround, which would call for the firing of half the schools’ staff and replacing its name. The PEP, which has never rejected a city proposal, will vote on the turnaround proposals on April 26.

Students from William E. Grady Career and Technical Education High School taped the wanted posters–which entreated viewers to call Martí at his office number and say, “you are wanted for crimes against New York City students”—to street poles around the block while two Cleveland students pounded on makeshift bucket-drums.

“I’ve had two years to get comfortable with the teachers,” Wassem Albakka, a sophomore from Grady, told me. “Walking up and down the hallway is going to be a little awkward, seeing teachers we don’t know.”

Students from Grover Cleveland High School bang bucket drums with cooking utensils to share their concerns about Panel for Educational Policy member Eduardo Martí with coworkers outside his East 80th Street offices.

Albakka said he is especially worried about whether the city will fire his football coach, who spends free periods reviewing games with students.

“Grady is like a family,” Mohannad Ikhma, also a sophomore, added. “Alumni come back here to visit. If they take the name away, where are they going to come back to?”

Ikhma also said he expected new teachers would have a difficult time commanding respect from the students, many of whom have rallied in opposition to the turnaround plan at the school in the past month.

Several Upper East Side residents passing by stopped to read the posters and ask the students what they were protesting.

“I don’t have any children in school,” one said. “But why does the mayor want to close the schools?”

At Bryant’s office two blocks north, an employee of Inwood House, the pregnancy-prevention program she runs, opened the building’s front door a crack to tell the students that Bryant was gone for the day, too. Rodriguez offered the woman a “wanted” poster with Bryant’s face on it, and she responded, “How cute,” before shutting the door.

The students also struck out at Bergraum’s office in Midtown West. They were told it was closing for the day when they arrived close to 5 p.m, so they resumed chanting outside the high-rise.

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.