mind the gap

Panel: Path to college-readiness paved with hard-to-fund plans

Panelists discuss obstacles to college readiness at an event hosted by the Center for New York City Affairs.

In an ideal world, the Department of Education would install dedicated college counselors in each city high school, according to Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky.

But doing so would cost the city more than $600 million, he said, so the department is trying instead to close the college-readiness gap with free or low-cost solutions, including training staff members at each school to offer college advice and tweaking the way school performance is measured.

Polakow-Suransky made the comments last week while appearing on a panel on college-readiness hosted by the Center for New York City Affairs. The center is set to release a report next month about why so few city students graduate with the skills they need for college — and what can be done about it.

Interviews with hundreds of students at struggling high schools conducted as part of the center’s research revealed that most had high aspirations for themselves, but few understood that simply graduating from high school would not ensure success in college. The findings reflect a dim reality: In 2010, when the city touted a 61 percent four-year graduation rate, just 21 percent of students who had entered high school in four years earlier met the state’s college-readiness standards.

The city’s main strategy for closing that gap is the Common Core, new learning standards that are supposed to push students to develop critical thinking skills required for college-level work.

But making sure students have the academic skills and knowledge to hack it in college is necessary but not sufficient to ensuring that they succeed there, said David Conley, a researcher who students college readiness. They also need “soft skills” such as persistence and “transition knowledge” about how to navigate the admissions process, he said.

Ideally, a dedicated college counselor in each school would provide the full complement of college-preparation skills, agreed the panelists. But even if the city could afford it, there is actually no way to get counseling training that’s focused on the college admissions process, said Richard Alvarez, the head of admissions for the City University of New York. Instead, licensed guidance counselors must juggle other responsibilities alongside managing college applications for hundreds of students.

Nonprofit organizations shoulder some of the burden, helping students develop study skills, visit colleges, and apply for financial aid. Some even supply full-time counselors for individual schools or campuses. “This is like an alternative that really works,” said panelist Fernando Carlo, who runs an activist group that helps staff “Student Success Centers” that supply college preparation training at some campuses.

Polakow-Suransky said the department is in the middle of training point-people at each school to offer college advice to students and teachers alike. He said the department is also encouraging schools to look to peers who have been more successful at promoting interest and energy around college attendance.

As an example, Polakow-Suransky pointed to Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School’s annual parade to the local post office to mail college applications. “Those kinds of culture rituals and making it at the heart of the school’s community don’t actually cost money,” he said.

The city is also starting to measure whether schools are teaching the “soft” skills students need for success in college, he said. On this year’s quality reviews, reviewers will look for the first time for evidence that students are being encouraged to ask for help and try again after falling short, both markers of whether a student has the inner resources for tougher work in a different environment.

The department is also poised to factor a set of college readiness metrics into each high school’s annual progress report for the first time this fall.

“We’re trying to put pressure on [schools] through a number of means, by offering them these resources but also saying to principals, ‘Your grade on your progress report is going to depend on how many kids actually enroll in college,'” Polakow-Suransky said.

“Principals are not totally happy with us about this because they feel that, ‘I can get a kid into college but then that period from May to September when they’re supposed to go, all kinds of things that are outisde of my control can happen,'” he added. “And what we’ve been saying is, ‘Yes, that’s true. But if you lay this foundation well and you see this as part of your responsibility, a lot more kids are going to get there.”

Sheena Wright, who heads the Abyssinian Development Corporation in Harlem, said lead time alone was inadequate preparation for the new accountability metrics.

“With the … stick that schools are going to be held accountable in terms of how their students persist through college, there really does need to be a complementary investment in the resources,” she said. “I don’t think training is going to be sufficient — you know, kind of identifying a leader that already exists in the school that already has five other jobs — but a real investment in someone who … that’s what they do.”

And Wright said she doubted that principals would be eager to share what works in their schools when they know that the city’s accountability system measures their performance against a “peer group” of similar schools. She proposed that schools get credit for how schools in their communities perform in the aggregate, to create incentives for sharing.

“That’s been very challenging for us in our neighborhoods,” she said. “It’s been extremely difficult to break down the walls with some of the school leaders to say, ‘You’re doing a great job. How do we share it with the school down the street?'”

Polakow-Suransky said he had heard that concern before, but that it was misplaced.

“Actually there’s very little to be gained by not sharing information with other schools,” he said. “People don’t necessarily understand that. … Each year when we do the training on the progress reports, we try to explain it again.”

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.