status update

A year in office, Walcott trumpets his middle schools initiative

Efforts to improve the city’s middle schools have come a long way since they were announced six months ago, Chancellor Dennis Walcott said today in a policy speech delivered days before his one-year anniversary of his sudden appointment.

Walcott returned to the same venue where he first announced the middle school reforms — New York University’s Kimmel Center – to deliver the keynote speech at a middle school colloquium hosted by NYU Steinhardt’s Research Alliance for New York City Schools. In his speech, Walcott said the city was in the process of rolling out a host of initiatives that the the Department of Education had either created or expanded since September, all in the interest of improving middle schools, which he said had become his main priority during his tenure.

“If we truly care about preparing our students for success in college and careers, middle school needs to be a central focus of our policies,” Walcott said.

Walcott announced that the DOE had allocated about $500,000 to develop new training programs for 150 teachers and 10 principals who he hoped would work specifically in middle schools. And he said the city would exceed his goal of creating 50 new middle schools in the next two years. Twenty-six new middle schools, including 14 charter schools, will open next fall and 28 more schools — including another 14 charters — are set to open in 2013.

Walcott also revealed more details about the city’s rebranded version of the City Council’s Campaign for Middle School Success. The new phase, called the Middle School Quality Initiative, has brought together 18 struggling middle schools to provide teachers and principals at the schools with professional development based on best practices used in higher-performing schools. So far one school — M.S. 244 in the Bronx — has been selected as a model school, but officials said they hoped to bring on two more “anchor” schools.

Back in September, skeptics observed that Walcott’s policy promises did not depart from the Bloomberg administration’s education agenda. Today, too, critics were quick to point out that little fundamental change going into his reform plans.

“There is not one thing that they’re doing here in schools that’s new,” said Richard Farkas, a middle school vice president for the United Federation of Teachers. Farkas said middle schools would be improved by smaller classes but when he posed that idea to Walcott, the chancellor disagreed, saying it wasn’t the most pressing need.

Walcott did announce updates to some new initiatives. The DOE will fund a $15 million, two-year program to provide non-fiction textbooks that will be available starting April 16 to help schools adopt to new Common Core literacy standards. Walcott also announced the creation of a new, privately-funded pilot summer school program called NYC Summer Quest. The program would be for students who struggled on their state tests, but not enough that they qualified for free summer school. The pilot is launching in the South Bronx, but “if the program is successful, we will expand it to other boroughs and neighborhoods,” Walcott said.

At one point, Walcott split from his prepared remarks and shared a story about a recent encounter he had with a middle school student who was bagging Walcott’s groceries. Walcott said the student told him that “he felt that he had a focus” at school,which Walcott said he later corroborated with the student’s principal, who added that the student used to struggle. Walcott said that it was this kind of character development — toward “resilience” — that was as necessary as “what goes on in the classroom.”

Walcott’s appearance was followed up immediately with a panel of dissent. NYU professor Pedro Noguera and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s senior education policy analyst, Mathu Subramanian, both said they were concerned about the city’s ability to implement many of the promised changes.

The city’s original rollout of the council’s Campaign for Middle School Success in 2008 was too focused on directing money to individual schools, Subramanian said. Each of the 51 schools in that initiative received $100,000 to use freely, terms that Subramanian said became problematic during consecutive years of budget cuts that left many holes to fill for principals.

Subramanian called the 2012 iteration a “successful collaboration” that seemed to be aimed more toward systemic change this time. “They really are looking at changes that can be scaled systemwide,” she said.

Noguera, who declined an invitation to participate on the Middle School Quality Initiative’s steering committee after sitting on the council’s version in 2008, was less optimistic.

“This is not a system that is designed to learn even from its successes,” he said.

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.