problem solvers

Students look close to home for civic engagement lessons

Young Writers seniors fielding questions during Citizenship Night

“Don’t be nervous,” Academy for Young Writers’ history teacher Stephen Lazar told his 72 seniors last night. The seniors were buzzing around the warm cafeteria, prepping their final citizenship projects for the imminent arrival of evaluators, who would be assessing their work and knowledge. “They’re nervous to hear what you’re going to do with the world.”

The seniors had spent the last six weeks brainstorming problems that effect them and the world, researching different perspectives on those problems, articulating their own policy recommendations, delivering persuasive speeches about their point of views on the issues, and working in groups to compile all of the research and findings on display boards. The groups targeted problems ranging from gentrification to cyber bullying to prostitution.

Citizenship Night was the culmination of the Center for Civic Educations’ Project Citizen, a curriculum Lazar implemented to promote students’ responsible participation in government. Approximately 15 “civic-minded” evaluators – mostly teachers, a couple journalists, a few external education stakeholders – perused the 24 trifold poster boards, clipboards in hand, pushing students to articulate their problems and proposed policies.

On one side of the cafeteria, the group that weighed the pros and cons of legalizing prostitution was continuing the debate amongst themselves.

Gabriela Diaz said that legalizing prostitution can open doors for women, providing them with legitimate business opportunities.

“It’s always going to be there,” Diaz said. “If we legalize it, we can contain it.”

“That doesn’t make it okay, ” group member Faith Rogers contested. If prostitution was legalized, she said, then a lot of the other problems her classmates had researched – like human trafficking and domestic violence – would be exacerbated.

Across the cafeteria, the cyber-bullying group was at consensus about how their problem of choice could be addressed: a virtual attack button. The button would be available on computers for victims to activate when they have been bullied, sending an alert to the police. While the group was unsure that they could logistically garner the financial support and legislative backing for their idea, they found the project valuable nonetheless.

“It made me feel like I have a voice,” Sarah Louissant said. “He’s preparing us for college. We learned about the topic and how to use our time and how to put stuff together.”

“And about statistics,” Stefanee Maynor chimed in.

“And the different techniques that you use to research,” Remy Hayward added.

Lazar noted that the biggest gap between what high school and college classes expect of students is the ability to research. In years past, Lazar had done similar civics projects with his students, but this year he tapped into the Project Citizen curriculum because of it’s emphasis on research. Much of his explicit instruction during this unit was not simply how to distinguish “good” and “bad” sources, but how to evaluate the perspective each source was from and to use it accordingly.

“You can evaluate my job on this work,” said Lazar. “This is valuable work that reveals college readiness. The Regents tests do not do this.” Lazar, who sits on an informal advisory board for GothamSchools, has long been a critic of the state’s Regents exams in history.

Grant Lindsay, an organizer with East Brooklyn Congregation (a community organization helping Young Writers transition to their new Fall 2012 home on the Spring Creek Campus), came to the event to support the school community. As a guest evaluator, the projects Lindsay saw hit close to home.

“It reminds me of when I was in high school because I was very passionate about concerns in my neighborhood,” Lindsay said, recalling the roots of his community organizing efforts. “If you give young people the opportunity to think of creative solutions, they’ll come up with really good things and they’ll succeed.”

Some groups have already taken the initiative to take their research and policy-knowledge to the next level. Rogers, from the prostitution group, is planning to join the Baldwin Foundation, three members from the domestic violence/rape group are tossing around the idea of starting a support group in their neighborhood or school, and the members of the gentrification and education group are reaching out to their communities at home and abroad, advocating for their cause.

Young Writers students filling in their voter registration forms

For example, Rifka Simmons attended the public hearing on Success Academy’s colocation in her current school building. She wrote a speech she had intended to deliver, but had to abandon it as the meeting extended past her curfew time. Still, she says, “I feel like I can be a part of the change.”

And Sydney Parsons will be traveling to Paris in April, through Our Better Angels, to compare the gentrification taking place in Harlem with that in La Courneuve.

“It’s humanly not cool to be splitting families up and removing them from their homes, where they’ve been for years,” Parsons said. Rattling off the effects of gentrification, Parsons paused to regroup her thoughts: “Sorry, I’ve read so much information that I’m getting it crossed.”

As the night wound down, Lazar delivered a “surprise” to his students before their buffet dinner. Standing on a cafeteria bench, with steaming platters of chicken and empanadas below him, Lazar announced that all eligible seniors would be registering to vote before the night’s end.

“Often politicians don’t listen to teenagers, and the reason they don’t listen to teenagers is because they don’t vote,” Lazar said. “Nothing we do the entire year makes a difference if you don’t back it up by being a registered voter.”

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.