stump speech

At rooftop garden party, 2013 candidates tout budding principal

From left, Christine Quinn, Kelly Shannon, Scott Stringer and Vicki Sando, founder of the Greenroon Environmental Literacy Laboratory, and state Senator Tom Duane.

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn are likely in for a year of confrontation as they prepare for their prospective mayoral bids.

But on Friday morning at the opening of P.S. 41’s new 7,000 square foot rooftop garden, they were happy to agree on one thing.

“We agree that you’d be on any mayor’s short list for chancellor,” Stringer said to P.S. 41’s principal Kelly Shannon during a speech in the Greenwich Village elementary school’s gymnasium.

The Democratic primary is still a year away, making serious contenders unlikely to make any declarative statements on education or anything else. But who a mayor considers — and eventually selects — to be his or her chancellor is one of the most telling hints for how a candidate plans to guide education policy, which is shaping up to be a defining issue in the race.

“There are two major decisions the next mayor’s going to make in this town. The first is, who’s gonna be the police commissioner? And then who’s gonna be the schools chancellor?” Stringer said.

Stringer later clarified that his comments were meant to be more of a reflection of Shannon’s ability to run a school and coordinate a large scale project that took six years and cost more than $1.5 million to complete than an indication of who he’d pick to run the school system if he were elected mayor.

But he still praised her abilities as principal. “The skill set that she demonstrates is really a skill set that we should look at for whoever the next chancellor may be,” said Stringer, who combined with Quinn contributed $1.3 million to the project.

The garden party eventually moved upstairs to the converted roof, which is now home to more than two dozen species of plants, solar paneling to fuel rooftop electricity and a water fountain that runs only when the sun is out. The roof, called the Greenroof Environmental Literacy Laboratory, opened last week for students, who teachers said would use it to enhance learning units on solar energy, plant biology and the scientific method.

When asked to discuss what they considered important qualities for a schools chancellor to have, Stringer and Quinn agreed again. Both said an extensive education background was important, but neither would say it was absolutely necessary.

“I think there are a lot of different kinds of folks who can bring a lot to our education system,” Quinn said.

There isn’t much precedent in New York City for schools chancellor appointment since control of the system was moved under the mayor’s office. Bloomberg’s shortlist in 2002 consisted of just one person with an extensive background in education, then-Cleveland schools chief, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, according to the Daily News at the time. Byrd-Bennett, now second-in-charge below Jean-Claude Brizard in Chicago, was then-Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott’s pick, but the job ultimately went to Joel Klein, a lawyer with business experience.

Bloomberg’s two succeeding chancellors, Cathie Black and Dennis Walcott, had barely any experience working in schools.

James Kemple, executive director of the Research Alliance for New York City Schools at New York University, said he believed that both classroom and management experience were important for the job. But “the most important factor for success will be the capacity to attract a leadership team that brings all of these skills to the task,” he said.

For her part, Shannon didn’t shy from the flattery and said she was honored to be mentioned. But she said as a veteran teacher and principal who has worked for 18 years in the school system, “experience is important.”

“You have to remember to bring it back to the people who are living on the front every single day,” Shannon added. “Make sure their voices are heard.”

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.