close of business

DOE collapses charter schools office as charter landscape shifts

Outgoing Charter Schools Office Executive Director Recy Dunn responds to a parent who was challenging the city's decision to close Peninsula Preparatory Academy in January.

While one tightly organized contingent of the city’s charter school sector prepared to stage a rally outside City Hall today, the Department of Education was shaking up its charter schools bureaucracy.

The Charter Schools Office’s executive director, Recy Dunn, is leaving the department, and the office is being subsumed into a broader division responsible for managing the opening, closing, and siting of schools, Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg announced in an email to his staff today.

Eliminating the Charter Schools Office is in some ways a remarkable move for the department, which has made charter schools a central prong of its reform strategy. But in other ways it is unsurprising, because the office lost momentum and authority in 2010, when legislators stripped the city of the right to award new charters.

Now, all new schools are authorized by either the State Education Department or SUNY’s Charter Schools Institute. The city’s role has been to assess existing schools, supporting them when they fall short of their promises and closing schools that do not improve.

This year, the department moved to close two schools that had faced academic and management problems and backed off of a threat to close a third struggling charter school. Both closures are currently on hold because of parent lawsuits challenging the validity of the department’s closure decision.

A charter schools insider who worked with Dunn at the department said Dunn was well liked but that the ongoing court battles had reflected poorly on his office.

“The DOE’s role right now is closing [charter] schools and they are not even able to do that successfully,” the source said.

Going forward, Sonia Park, who has headed one of the charter school office’s three networks, will supervise charter school accountability and support. Miriam Sondheimer, who is already working in the department’s portfolio division, will take over responsibilities relating to charter schools’ space — a challenging job because of the often contentious co-location arrangements.

Dunn had run the Charter Schools Office since October 2010, months after the state law change and two months after the previous director, Michael Duffy, departed to run a charter network of his own. Dunn had previously run the Department of Education’s early childhood office. He will become a manager at New Leaders, a national nonprofit that helps develop school leaders, according to Sternberg’s email.

Sternberg also announced that he had selected a replacement for his chief of staff, Romy Drucker, who has worked at the department for five years. Edward Hui, who has headed an office in charge of new school development, will take over. A large portion of his work will focus on implementing “turnaround,” the controversial process set to take place in 24 struggling schools over the summer, Sternberg wrote.

Sternberg’s complete email message to his staff is below.

Dear Colleagues:

I am writing to update you regarding several organizational realignments in the Division of Portfolio Planning. Although we are sad to see some of our most-valued colleagues go, we look forward to seeing members of our team take on new leadership roles and are excited about the contributions they will make to our work going forward.

On June 20th, Recy Dunn, who serves as Executive Director of the Charter Schools Office, will be leaving the Department of Education to become Regional Director at New Leaders.  In his tenure at the Department, Recy has made an enormous contribution to the children of New York City.  He was instrumental in strengthening the work of the Office of Early Childhood Education so our youngest learners can be better prepared for college and career readiness.  Leading the Charter Schools Office, Recy assembled an all-star team to carry out the critical charge of developing, supporting, and holding accountable high-quality charter schools.  Please join me in thanking Recy for his immeasurable investment in our work.  We wish him well in his new post and know he will continue to be an ally to the cause.  Over the next two weeks, Recy will serve as a special advisor to me to ensure a smooth transition.

Effective immediately, the Charter Schools Office (CSO) will move into the Office of Portfolio Management (OPM).  I am pleased to announce that Paymon Rouhanifard will become the Chief Executive Officer for Portfolio Management and will now oversee all CSO work, in addition to his current responsibilities overseeing citywide planning strategy.  This realignment will strengthen the Department’s efforts to attract and site high quality charter schools, to provide top-notch support and oversight to New York City’s 160 charters, and to make key charter processes sustainable.

Reporting to Paymon, Sonia Park will become Executive Director of Charter Schools Support & Accountability. In this role she will lead charter oversight efforts and the delivery of operational support to New York City’s 160 charter schools.   Miriam Sondheimer will become Executive Director of Charter Policy & Planning, and will also report to Paymon.  In this role she will manage citywide charter school policies and activities related to pipeline development, siting, and facilities.  Sonia and Miriam both bring years of experience working with charter schools to their new roles. We are excited about the vision and leadership they will bring to their charge.

As many of you already know, my Chief of Staff, Romy Drucker, will be leaving the Department to attend Harvard Business School. Over the past five years, Romy has been a colleague and friend to so many of us, and always a resilient advocate of the Children First reforms.  I am personally grateful for her partnership over the past two years and hope you will join me tonight (6pm @ Bubble Lounge) to show your appreciation for her work.

As Romy transitions out, I am pleased to announce that Edward Hui, who was previously serving as Executive Director of the Office of School Development in our Division, will become my Chief of Staff.  In this role, Edward will serve as senior project manager for Turnaround, as has Romy, as well as support work across the Division. In his five years at the Department, Edward has played a critical role in advancing numerous citywide reforms including ARIS, School of One, and New York City’s School Improvement Grant work with Persistently Lowest Achieving Schools. I am excited about the experience, excellence, and energy he will bring to this post.

It has been an impactful year for the Division of Portfolio Planning. As a result of our teams’ collective work this year, more than 170 portfolio reforms are planned for implementation in school year 2012-13 – up from 134 portfolio reforms that were implemented this year.  Thank you for your teams’ continued partnership and support to expand and enhance student and family choice, increase access to great schools, and improve learning conditions systemwide – from Pre-K to 12.

Please feel free to forward this announcement to your teams.


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.