transparency report

City has released only scarce data from early special ed reforms

A slide from a Department of Education presentation shows only limited information about the effects of the pilot of special education reforms.

Advocates for students with disabilities who have been defending the Department of Education’s special education reforms in the face of mounting criticism are coming to the end of their rope.

They have been calling on the city for years to integrate more students with special needs in mainstream classrooms and were cautiously optimistic in 2010 when the department launched a pilot aimed at doing just that.

But two years into the pilot, with the ambitious initiative set to scale citywide this fall, no one outside of the Department of Education has any solid idea how the initiative has worked so far. Even after extending the pilot for a year, the department has released scant information about what has happened to the schools and students involved in it.

“We’ve been asking for more information forever, essentially,” said Maggie Moroff, who heads the ARISE Coalition of special education advocates, which this week sent a letter of concern to top department officials.

Details have come out in dribs and drabs. One slideshow that department officials have presented shows that attendance and test scores for students with special needs in the pilot schools did not improve. The data points the department touts most often is that students in the pilot schools were referred to special education less frequently and moved into less restrictive environments more often than in comparable schools not participating in the pilot.

But those data points say only that schools did what they were asked to do: aim for placing fewer students in special education classes, for less time. When it comes to more complex and, according to advocates and special education experts, more meaningful data points, the department has been mum.

Has the move toward inclusion affected all kinds of students equally? the advocates have asked. Have suspensions of students with disabilities declined in the pilot schools? Are parents more satisfied with their children’s placements? How have teachers in the pilot schools been trained? What is the department learning about instruction for students with special needs? How has implementation varied from school to school?

So far, they have not gotten answers. The silence is one of the chief reasons that the ARISE Coalition formally informed the department this week of its concerns about schools’ readiness to handle new expectations about how they serve students with special needs. Among the requests in the letter is for a thorough and public review of the initiative’s first phase.

“There are certain questions that we have asked again and again and again,” Moroff said. “The members of the coalition are really concerned and they really need to have these questions answered.”

Moroff said multiple meetings with top department officials have given her confidence that the special education reforms were conceived with students’ best interests at heart. And she said the department has responded to some of the coalition’s suggestions, for example setting up an information hotline for parents of children who are turning five and entering the public school system for the first time.

But she said coalition members are growing increasingly alarmed that the next phase of the reforms is approaching and the department has not come forward with more substantive results.

Department officials say a detailed review of the pilot’s second year is underway and that a review of the first year’s results suggested that changes to how students with special needs are evaluated had resulted in students who might mistakenly have been classified as having a disability in the past not being placed in special education classes.

“We know that when students with disabilities have greater access to the general education curriculum and their non-disabled peers, they have a higher likelihood of succeeding academically,” said Deidrea Miller, a department spokeswoman, in a statement.

But some special education advocates say they suspect the department’s silence masks bad news.

“Knowing this administration, if they had something something good to report they would report it,” said Carmen Alvarez, the UFT’s vice president for special education. The UFT is one of the ARISE Coalition’s 45 members.

Alvarez said teachers are reporting widespread confusion about what they will be expected to do differently this fall as more students with special needs begin to enter their classes. Elizabeth Truly, another UFT official who works on special education issues, said the department would not even tell the union how many schools have sent teachers to special education training sessions at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

Members of the Citywide Council on Special Education, an elected parent group, are hearing similar concerns from families who have gotten mixed messages and, sometimes, incorrect messages from schools, according to member Lori Podvesker.

“So many of the teachers don’t know what’s going on,” Podvesker said. “There is lots of rhetoric out there that’s not correct because they’re not getting information from central.”

The advocacy community is torn about what to do about the department’s silence. On the one hand, advocates have long pushed the city to include students with disabilities more robustly in general education settings, and they are hesitant to derail that shift once it has begun. The elected parent council for Manhattan’s District 2 has alone formally asked the department to slow down the reforms until more information is available about their impact and schools’ readiness to move forward.

But advocates are also concerned that the department is rushing headlong into change and not examining whether the special education reforms could be implemented in a way that’s better for students with special needs.

“We’re worried that schools don’t get what’s expected of them and that they have not gotten the support they need — and that they are not going to get the ongoing support that they need,” Moroff said.

The City Council’s education committee is holding a hearing about the special education reforms June 12.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.