breaking news

State names 123 city schools to improve or close by 2015

New York State’s No Child Left Behind waiver has spawned a new list of struggling schools that education officials could close if they don’t post dramatic improvements by 2015.

That list includes many schools that were identified as struggling by the state in the past and have undergone deep reform interventions or begun phasing out, but now labels them as “priority schools.” In New York City, there are 123 priority schools, nearly double the schools once identified as “persistently low achieving” because their students performed poorly on state tests and posted low graduation rates.

The schools are being called priority schools because their statistics are grim, officials said. The state determined which schools would be identified as priority based on four-year graduation rates (under 60 percent) in high schools and a student growth formula from state test scores in elementary and middle schools that places the schools in the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide, per guidelines set by the federal government.

The districts will have just three years to improve these data points, according to a release the State Education Department published late this afternoon, and must submit transitional plans for each priority school by October. And for the first time, State Education Commissioner John King will have the authority to require districts to close the schools that fail to make gains.

Districts generally have several options for funding reforms in these schools through federal School Improvement Grant and Race to the Top Innovation Funding programs. But New York City has fewer.

Because the city and the teachers union have yet to agree on a teacher evaluation plan, state officials said the city is only eligible to receive funding to implement the most stringent of interventions: school closure over a four-year period, through a process known as phase-out, or school “turnaround.” But turnaround is for now off the table because the city lost a lawsuit over its plans to use the turnaround model in 24 schools earlier this summer. It is appealing the decision, but is not likely to see a resolution soon.

SED spokesman Dennis Tompkins said the city would be eligible to receive funds for priority schools it decides to close in the coming school year, and that officials expect the city to propose closure for some of the schools on the list this fall.

Before priority schools, there were Schools in Need of Improvement (SINI), a list of hundreds of schools that the state required to devise improvement plans under NCLB guidelines. The list grew every year, and schools put on the list never came off it.

The new waiver guidelines mean that far fewer schools will have an improvement status compared to previous years. But the interventions for these schools will be more aggressive and more extensive. Ira Schwartz, SED’s assistant commissioner for accountability, told reporters that the new lists hold schools to higher standards than the SINI list did, but at the same time makes the list of schools under pressure more manageable.

“We appplied college and career standards to create these lists. We were testing against higher standards and [we] incorporated growth similar to what we’re doing with teacher and principal evaluations,” he said. “We think this list is more right-sized.”

School districts will also be able to redirect some funds that were once used to fund after school tutoring to new initiatives in the priority schools. The school improvement plans must include an extended learning day and a small increase in parent engagement program spending.

Schwartz said there is a chance some schools could be removed from the priority list if they post significant improvements in the coming year. But once a school begins implementing a reform program, it must stick through it for three years and be accountable for the end results, even if it shows improvements in the short term.

More than a dozen of the city schools that the state identified for intensive improvement, including Christopher Columbus High School and Jamaica High School, won’t have a chance to try. That’s because the city has already began phasing them out as part of a four-year closure plan.

The other priority schools on the list that will be closed within the next four years are: Norman Thomas High School, Washington Irving Academy, John F. Kennedy, Monroe Academy for Business/Law, Metropolitan Corporate Academy, Paul Robeson, Beach Channel, Samuel Gompers Career and Technical Education, Jane Addams, and Grace Dodge Career and Technical Education.

The state’s list features all 24 of the former “turnaround” schools the city unsuccessfully moved to close this year, and a handful of schools that opened under the Bloomberg administration—some as recently as 2006 and 2008. The list also has one city charter school: Williamsburg Charter High School.

In addition to the priority school list, the state named 70 school districts, including New York City, as “focus districts,” because their ethnic minority students, students with disabilities, and English Language Learners have performed particularly poorly on the state’s reading and math exams, and have graduation rates far below average. From there, New York City selected more than 200 schools as focus schools, where it must now develop school improvement plans that target the populations of students that are most in need of help.

Many of the priority schools are high schools, but most of the schools that the city picked as focus schools are elementary and middle schools. Two charter schools, Opportunity Charter School and St. Hope Academy Charter School made the focus list.

New York City schools also made up a good portion of the state’s list for top-performing schools, called “Reward and Recognition Schools.” Of the 250 schools on this list, 55 were from New York City. These are schools that have either made the most progress on student achievement and do not have significant achievement gaps.

As part of the recognition, the schools will be rewarded between $150,000 and $300,000 to expand their models of success into more schools or more grades. The state education department said it plans to release yet another list this fall, called “Recognition Schools” that meet most, but not all of the criteria.

Teachers union president Michael Mulgrew said the new lists might motivate the city to close more schools, but the focus list is likely to encourage officials to create improvement plans in schools that have never had ones before.

“They’re already saying they want to close more schools, but they’ve never had a plan for how to help a struggling school,” he said in an interview. “If your crowning achievement is closing more schools than ever before before you leave [office,] that’s the single biggest piece of evidence that [Mayor Michael Bloomberg] is doing a bad job.”

David Bloomfield, a professor of educational leadership at the City University of New York, said the new lists do not seem to represent a significant departure from the NCLB criteria, which determines whether schools are in good standing or not based on similar categories, such as the performance of high needs students. But he said it’s possible they could still motivate political decisions in the city this year.

“Here is a newly prominent sign that there are still so many failing schools in New York City, he said.  “The SINI list became like wallpaper and nobody noticed it. This may encourage the Mayor to close more schools, but it also highlights the number of schools that are still low performing.”

State Education Department Memo on priority, focus and reward schools:

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.