know your neighbors

Harlem leaders champion new school run by Teachers College

Principal Worrell-Breeden looked on as first graders from the Teachers College Community School sang "What a Wonderful World" and recited the song in sign language.

West Harlem community leaders heralded the coming of the year-old Teachers College Community School yesterday as a new district school option for a neighborhood packed with charter schools.

The elementary school, which opened in East Harlem last year and moved to Manhattanville this fall, is managed by Columbia University’s school of education.

In recent years, many new schools have come to West Harlem in the form of high-profile charter school networks that have brought both educational opportunities and controversy to the neighborhood. Like those schools, the fledgling elementary school admits students randomly through a lottery process, and it relies on a mix of public and private funding to operate.

But it also has the widespread support of political leaders who have served as some of the most vocal critics of the city’s charter school policies, among them State Assemblyman Keith Wright. Wright has proposed legislation to give parent councils veto power over city plans to require district and charter schools to share space.

A range of Harlem community leaders, including City Councilman Robert Jackson and Donald Notice, president of the West Harlem Development Corporation, turned out to the school’s opening ceremony yesterday to laud the effort Columbia has made to support the school and help renovate its new, permanent home on Manhattanville’s Morningside Avenue.

Wright was sitting in the audience until Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch offered to give him her seat on the ceremony stage, which was shared by Chancellor Dennis Walcott and other leaders from Columbia University, Teachers College and the community.

Jackson said, “Every parent has a right to choose what’s best for their child—no matter who you are, you have to decide. Isn’t that right, Keith?”

“Yep,” he replied, grinning.

The leaders on stage said the school represented the fruits of a sometimes tense collaboration between the neighborhood and the university, and paved the way for more collaboration through Teachers College. Columbia has long been criticized by Harlem residents for developing land into university buildings that make the areas less affordable. University President Lee Bollinger said the school epitomized efforts to mend neighborly relations.

With an allusion to one of the Harlem Renaissance’s most famous poems, Wright suggested that the effort was slow to come, but very valuable:

“What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up. like a raisin in the sun?” he said, quoting Langston Hughes. “No. A school gets built on 126th Street.”

The Community School opened in 2011 with 50 Kindergarten students, but because that location still needed renovations, the city placed it in a temporary home in East Harlem—about a mile from the neighborhood it was designed to serve. That design was set three years ago amidst a contentious university bid to expand into the Manhattanville part of Harlem. At the time, Columbia University agreed to help found a new neighborhood elementary and middle school, among other promises made to various Harlem leaders, to encourage them to to withdraw their opposition to its plans.

“This went through a lot of changes and a lot of negotiations here and there as part of a larger agreement with the community. And this is an experiment,” Jackson said to the audience, which was filled with families, teachers and students just out of school. “Is it going to work? You better believe it’s going to work, because all the [organizations] up here are going to make sure it’s going to work.”

Now that the school has settled into its new home, the principal Jeanene Worrell-Breeden, said the biggest logistical challenge is behind, but there is still more work to be done.

“Our challenge was finding a new home. Now, it’s just to make sure our children’s needs are met and make sure they’re settled. We’re making sure to include all those new families,” she said in an interview.

Parents who attended the gathering said they were very pleased with their choice, made after weighing options that consisted of mostly charter schools.

Julate Walker, whose daughter is in first grade, said she was directed to the Community School by the administrators of the nearby KIPP Infinity Charter School, which already had filled its roster when she looked into applying in 2011.

“I’m absolutely very satisfied here,” she said. “I feel very included, it’s like a family. Everybody is caring and considerate.”

Another parent said she heard about the school when she attended an information session for the French American Charter School, another nearby elementary school.

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.