principaled advocacy

StudentsFirstNY adds an educator in time for Cuomo task force

Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky taught a class at Bronx Academy of Letters in May. The school's principal has joined an education advocacy group, StudentsFirstNY.

When New York City faced a budget shortfall three years ago, Bronx Academy of Letters principal Anna Hall faced a crisis at her school.

Because state law requires that layoffs start with the newest teachers, threatened cuts meant more than 50 percent of Hall’s strongest teachers would be cut loose: They had logged relatively few years in the school system.

“That was the most harrowing, horrible experience,” Hall said.

The layoffs never materialized. But the scare cemented Hall’s belief that teachers shouldn’t be protected from layoffs based solely on their experience.

The experience was one of many that Hall said drew her to her new job: as director of education for StudentsFirstNY, the state’s spinoff of Michelle Rhee’s national education advocacy group.

StudentsFirstNY has kept a low profile in the three months since its splashy entrance onto the education advocacy scene. It spent about $10,000 on a mailer to support Hakeem Jeffries in his successful Congressional primary campaign against Charles Barron last month, according to federal election filings. But the group has steered clear of some more heated education debates, including the city’s now-failed effort to close two dozen schools through a federal turnaround model, and it has not yet fully articulated its policy agenda for the next year.

That seems poised to change today. Hall is set to share her personal hopes for policy change at a public meeting in the Bronx of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s education reform commission.

The commission, which convened earlier this year, is charged with giving Cuomo a set of recommendations to provide wholesale change to the state’s education system focused on saving money and improving student learning. The commission has been traveling the state to hear testimony from a variety of advocates. At its New York City stop today, those scheduled to speak include Zakiyah Ansari of the Alliance for Quality Education; outgoing UFT Vice President Leo Casey; Evan Stone, of the teacher advocacy group Educators 4 Excellence; and Jemina Bernard, interim director of Teach for America’s New York office, in addition to Hall.

Former colleagues and officials with StudentsFirstNY praised Hall’s background as an educator, but it also doesn’t hurt that her  views on education policies align closely to those of StudentsFirst, the national organization. In her testimony, which will be focused on policies to improve teacher quality, Hall will call for an end to tenure and seniority-based layoffs.

“It’s a radical notion, but I question whether tenure should remain part of our system at all,” according to Hall’s prepared testimony, which was provided in advance to GothamSchools.

She’ll also propose letting districts decide what teachers need to do to get certified before they are allowed to lead a class room. And to help recruit and retain high quality teachers, Hall says that districts should be allowed to forgive new teachers’ college loans and offer bonuses to top performers, two proposals that Mayor Bloomberg floated in his State of the City speech earlier this year.

To push districts and their unions to negotiate these clauses into the teachers contract, Hall said the state legislature should use its budgetary power to withhold state aid, a move that the Cuomo administration has already made to encourage districts to hash out teacher evaluation deals.

Hall, 36, said her interest in entering the world of education policy came from nearly a decade working in the classroom and as a school leader.

“After nine years, I wanted to reset a bit, find a new way to engage in the work that would give me a new perspective on it,” she said.

Hall was the first teacher that founding principal Joan Sullivan hired at Bronx Academy of Letters in 2003. When Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa hired Sullivan to oversee his education agenda in Los Angeles in 2009, Hall replaced her as principal.

In recent years, Bronx Letters has been a regular stop for city Department of Education officials, including Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky when he wanted to teach a class and Chancellor Dennis Walcott on the first day of school last year. Hall said at the time that she was particularly concerned about having the resources to handle her school’s influx of students with special needs.

“She has the opportunity to influence the direction of education in New York and to bring her really substantial skills as a frontline educator to bear in the larger policy debate,” said Sullivan, who said she spoke to Hall before Hall accepted the StudentsFirstNY position. “So it made a lot of sense to me.”

Micah Lasher, who was Mayor Bloomberg’s top Albany lobbyist before leaving to launch StudentsFirstNY as its executive director in April, said hiring someone like Hall to help guide the group’s policy agenda was crucial.

“She’s exactly the kind of person who should be leading this conversation,” Lasher 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.