The kids are all right

Shooting for state ed commission, teens launch Student Voice

Nikhil Goyal (second to left) and Matthew Resnick (right) speak at a panel at #140ed on Wednesday, with a live tweet from Resnick as the backdrop.

In suits and ties, they’re spending the summer in making speeches before thousands of people, bolstering their online presence, and pushing for changes to state governance.

But some of them aren’t even old enough to vote.

A handful of New York State high school students have banded together to create Student Voice, an organization devoted to empowering students. Their first project is to get representation on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s education reform commission, where they say students are imperative to conversations about teacher evaluations and technology policy.

Two of the three students behind Student Voice come from Long Island high schools. The third, Matthew Resnick, is a senior at Manhattan’s Eleanor Roosevelt High School.

“It’s like a detective conduncting a criminal investigation without interviewing the victims,” said Zak Malamed, a recent high school graduate from Great Neck, about the commission. “We are the victims of the system’s flaws, so we should at least have a voice.”

The organization started this spring when Malamed realized that through the internet, he could connect to hundreds of other peers interested in education policy. That’s how he met Resnick and Nikhil Goyal, a senior at Syosset High School, who helped him launch the group.

“The trigger was realizing that I’m not the only one, I’m not an anomaly in wanting to change the education system as it is,” Malamed said.

In mid-May, Malamed organized a Twitter chat with the hashtag #StuVoice. He expected 10 or 15 students to participate, but the numbers were much larger, he said, and adults joined in as well. The experience made Malamed realize that students needed a central outlet to share their ideas about education, and their stories from the ground, and StuVoice.org was born. The site formally launched on Tuesday with short essays from high school and college students from across the country.

In the meantime, he began to collaborate with Resnick and Goyal on Student Voice’s big project — getting student representation on the New York Education Reform Commission. After the trio sent a letter to Cuomo making their case, the governor responded with a letter that said the commission had already capped out at 25 members but encouraged the students to show up at hearings.

Malamed said he was happy just to get a response.

“They responded in a week, and to respond to students in a week, you don’t expect the governor to do that,” he said before quickly adding, “Even though he should!”

The local group is also planning to focus on New York City’s 2013 mayoral election. Goyal, a 17-year-old Syosset resident, said he has not been a fan of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s education policies, and he’ll be urging candidates to listen more to students about issues ranging from school closures to social media in the classroom.

Student Voice leader Nikhil Goyal, right, stopped by a GothamSchools party in June to meet teachers and education policy-makers.

He said the next mayor should look to Newark Mayor Cory Booker (with whom Goyal also disagrees on policy points) about how to engage with teens. Booker launched a social media site centered around Newark public policy last month.

“He’s giving teens a voice, and eventually they’re going to be voters,” Goyal said, who has an e-book, “One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School,” coming out next month and speaking engagements lined up in places as far-flung as Austria and India.

Malamed, Resnick, and Goyal all spoke today at the 92nd Street Y during a conference about the influence of social media on education.

Student Voice’s core members don’t always agree. In his book and in letters to the editor published in major newspapers, Goyal makes clear that is critical of current trends in education policy. He panned the trend of toughening teacher evaluations in a letter to the Wall Street Journal, and last week he wrote on his personal blog that the education commission’s New York City meeting had been “overshadowed by ridiculous charter school evangelists and corporate reformers.”

Resnick, on the other hand, subscribes to a more aggressive brand of education policy. In two Huffington Post pieces this spring, he advocated for tougher evaluations, crediting the group Educators 4 Excellence for informing his opinions.

Recently, a representative from Students For Education Reform, a group backed by 50CAN and Teach for America that mobilizes college students, reached out to Student Voice to discuss a partnership, Resnick said.

But Malamed said the group would never come out with a single policy platform — that’s not the point.

“We recognize that a student in Des Moines, Iowa, is going to have different needs and different views than a student in New York City,” Malamed said.

And although starting a national organization won’t look too shabby on a college application, the University of Maryland-bound teenager said that’s not the point, either.

“When you’re a student, a lot of it can become about resume-building and a lot of egos can get in the way,” he said. “So we’re trying to put that behind us.”

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.