reverse creaming

Vigorous effort yields high-need students for new charter school

When leaders of the Children’s Aid Society set out to develop a charter school with wraparound social services for the Bronx’s neediest elementary school students, they understood the challenges before them.

Putting the social services in place would be complicated but in reach for the nonprofit group, which has connected service providers and offered its own programs for more than 150 years. And Drema Brown, the CAS official leading the project, would draw on her experience as a school principal to develop the school’s academic program.

But making sure that the Children’s Aid Society Community Charter School enrolled the highest-needs students would be a taller order — even though the school promised after-school programming, a longer school year, and a wealth of counselors that would be particularly helpful for them. A major reason is that charter schools’ admissions rules favor families with the stability and savvy to enter a lottery that takes place more than five months before the start of school.

“It is no secret that charter schools are having to deal with the idea that there is a selection process which would seem to prevent the kids who need it most from getting into the schools,” Gregory Morris, the assistant to CAS’s president, said earlier this year. “We’re going to use the foundations we’ve already laid to be certain that we’re going to increase the odds of kids who would be least likely to normally get into a school like this.”

So the group placed ads in bilingual publications and deployed staff who work with families around the Bronx to spread the word about the new school. Bilingual CAS social workers, canvassers, and caseworkers worked together to reach families who otherwise might have missed the chance to try for the charter school option.

Now, with less than a week to go until the school’s application deadline, it looks like CAS has gotten what it set out for. Of just over 300 applications the school has already received, 70 percent are from English language learners, nearly 70 percent are from single-parent households, and more than 20 percent are in the child welfare system, according to Brown.

“We have a lot of relationships out in the community with the families beause of all the work that CAS does in the Bronx,” Brown said. “I have been working with a lot of staff internally around this very notion, saying to them you’re going to be the best recruiters because you’ll actually know the families who might benefit from this school.”

Next year, Brown said, the school will aim for more applications, and more from inside the district where the school is located — two key measures that charter schools frequently cite to prove demand. This year, about a third of the applications have come from District 12, and Brown said the school hoped to amend its charter to reserve a majority of spots for District 12 students.

In the meantime, Brown is checking two more important tasks off her new school to-do list: Finding a location, and hiring a principal.

In January, the Panel for Educational Policy approved a plan to co-locate the charter school with P.S. 211 and I.S. 318 in Morrisania. CAS already partners with P.S. 211, and as a result, Brown said, “as co-locations go, this was a much more pleasant process.” The co-location was approved for the next three years, and Brown said CAS is searching for a more permanent home for 2015 and beyond.

And just three weeks ago, the CAS hired Ife Lenard to serve as principal of the school. Lenard, who holds degrees in education and social work, served as assistant principal at the high-performing Bronx Charter School for Excellence.

“We thought it was important that whoever went into the school could hold both ends of the vision, rigorous academics and an understanding of the family and child support—the importance of after-school and family support services,” Brown said. “Some traditional educators just see after school, and they dont see all the additional supports and the the full range of outcomes for kids beyond academic support. But Ife really represented all of that for us.”

Lenard said she is hoping to bring the academic “best practices” of her former school to CAS. She said the classes would emphasize small, flexible groups, hands on activities, inquiry-based learning, math literacy, and field trips related to what students are learning. She also said the school would make sure that it creates an environment that goes beyond academics.

“You want to have an environment that celebrates achievement, and it coud be achievement in all facets, social, emotional and academic,” she said. For example, “A pep rally means a lot. It’s going to be a norm for our school community.”

Lenard’s main duties so far have included recruiting families and teachers for the school. She recently drew about 40 parents and students to the CAS’s Next Generation Center on Southern Boulevard for an information session held on one of this month’s unseasonably warm mornings.

“They’re the same anxious kindergarten parents as any have been,” Lenard said. “We talked about the school day, the uniforms, the curriculum, what my philosophy is. I talked about planting seeds in children at the earliest age, to groom students to become scholars.”


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.