gang of 20

Cuomo names appointees to state education reform commission

When Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced in January that he would convene a commission to set a course for reforming New York’s schools, insiders said many members would likely come from out of state.

That wasn’t true when Cuomo revealed the composition of the commission in Albany today. All but a handful of the 20 commission members are based in New York, and about half are based in New York CIty.

But the commission is still a far cry from the last panel Cuomo convened, a “think tank” of educators and advocates who advised the state in its bid to escape some federal accountability measures. Few of its members work in organizations that interact directly with children, even fewer are advocates, and there are no district representatives. There is also no parent advocate on the commission, even it is being asked to devise strategies to increase parent engagement.

Instead, commission members are drawn from the highest levels of state government, the state and city university systems, and nonprofit organizations. They include State Education Commissioner John King, Assembly Education Committee Chair Catherine Nolan, and SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher.

“It’s very blue-ribbon,” said CUNY education professor David Bloomfield about the panel’s composition. “The establishment nature of the commission makes it less likely that they will come up with anti-establishment recommendations.”

Working under the leadership of chair Richard Parsons, a former head of CitiGroup and Time Warner; and top Cuomo deputies, they will have seven months to make recommendations about how to boost student achievement and make education spending more efficient. Cuomo said today that he wanted the recommendations to form “an action plan” for his administration.

The commission’s tasks, set by Cuomo in an executive order, include finding ways to improve teacher recruitment and evaluation, proposing strategies to boost test scores, scrutinizing education funding, figuring out how schools should use technology, and examining issues facing urban and rural students.

The commission is also being asked to consider streamlining the state’s education system to reduce expenses, an issue that is unlikely to affect New York City but could be potentially explosive upstate, where there are more than 700 districts with their own staffs, services, and sports teams.

Timothy Kremer, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, decried the lack of local school board representation on the commission.

“The perspective of those who are elected by their communities to provide leadership and direction, oversee millions in taxpayer dollars, and make decisions about programs that impact students for the rest of their lives ought to have a place at the table,” Kremer said in a statement.

One commission member actually is a school board member, technically: Eduardo Martí, a CUNY official, is a mayoral appointee to the city’s unelected school board, the Panel for Educational Policy. Other appointees also have close connections to the Bloomberg administration, including Irma Zardoya, a former superintendent who now runs the city’s principal training program, and Geoffrey Canada, CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone.

But other members have been more critical about the city’s and state’s education reform agendas. Randi Weingarten, the former UFT president who now heads the American Federation of Teachers, is on the panel but was not in Albany today to announce its formation. Another member, Michael Rebell, led a successful effort to sue the state over funding inequities and has hinted that another lawsuit could be on the horizon.

The panel will “meet several times and gather input and information from across the state” before submitting recommendations by Dec. 1, according to a press release from Cuomo’s office. That timing would allow Cuomo to incorporate recommendations he wishes to follow into his State of the State address and legislative agenda in 2013.

The full list of panel members and their affiliations is below.

Richard (Dick) Parsons, Retired Chairman, Citigroup, Chair of the New NY Education Reform Commission
Randi Weingarten, President, American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO
Geoffrey Canada, Founder & CEO, Harlem Children’s Zone
Irma Zardoya, President & CEO, NYC Leadership Academy
Elizabeth Dickey, President, Bank Street College of Education
Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey, President, Say Yes to Education
Lisa Belzberg, Founder & Chair Emeritus, PENCIL
Michael Rebell, Co-Founder & Executive Director, Campaign for Educational Equity
Karen Hawley Miles, President & Executive Director, Education Resource Strategies
José Luis Rodríguez, Founder & CEO, Hispanic Information and Telecommunications Network, Inc.
Sara Mead, Associate Partner, Bellwether Education Partners
Eduardo Martí, Vice Chancellor of Community Colleges, CUNY
Thomas Kane, Professor of Education & Economics, Harvard Graduate School of Education
Jean Desravines, CEO, New Leaders for New Schools
Michael Horn, Executive Director & Co-Founder, InnoSight Institute
Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, Chancellor, SUNY
Chancellor Matthew Goldstein, Chancellor, CUNY
John B. King, Jr., Commissioner, New York State Education Department
Senator John Flanagan, Chair, Senate Education Committee
Assembly Member Cathy Nolan, Chair, Assembly Education Committee

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.

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.