Process of elimination

Dozens of elementary and middle schools told they might close

J.H.S. 166 in Brooklyn is one of 36 elementary and middle schools that the Department of Education has put on notice because of poor performance.

Three dozen schools that received low grades from the Department of Education on Monday are already getting notice that the city is gravely worried about their performance.

Department of Education officials have identified 36 schools — including 15 middle schools and 25 schools in Brooklyn and the Bronx — for an “early engagement” process that could lead either to closure or another lease on life.

This is the third year that the city, eager to stem some of the public outcry over school closures, has held conversations with low-performing schools before announcing which schools it plans to close. This year’s closures will be the last of the Bloomberg administration.

The potential closure list is nearly twice as long as last year’s, when the city held early engagement meetings at 20 elementary and middle schools and ultimately moved to close 10 of them. It is culled from 217 schools whose progress report scores put them at risk of closure, according to the city’s rules.

This year’s list includes several schools that have already had closure scares. Two schools, M.S. 142 in the Bronx and Brooklyn’s General D. Chappie James Middle School of Science, went through early engagement last year. (Chappie’s sister elementary school is now in the process of closing.) M.S. 142 and another school, J.H.S. 166 in Brooklyn, were also slated to undergo a different closure process called “turnaround” last year until the city was forced to abandon those plans.

The list also includes two charter schools that the city allowed to open, Bronx Community Charter School and Mott Haven Academy Charter School, which serves students in the foster care system. Both of the schools are up for renewal this year.

Department officials compiled the shortlist by looking at schools’ progress report grades, their Quality Reviews, the results of state evaluations, and the efforts they’ve already undertaken to improve.

But in starting early engagement, which includes communication with parent leaders and public meetings at each school, the department hopes to learn why the schools are struggling and whether other efforts could help them, according to Marc Sternberg, the department’s deputy chancellor in charge of school closures.

“These are difficult conversations, but it’s important to have this dialogue and hold our schools to the highest of standards,” Sternberg said in a statement. “We’ll take the feedback that we receive from the school and community into consideration as we explore options to improve performance and support student success.”

Fifteen of the schools are middle schools, signaling where the department could start making room for some of the 25 new middle schools it has vowed to open next year.

The city has vowed to open at least 50 new schools next year, including 25 middle schools.

The schools represent only a small fraction of those with progress report scores low enough to put them on the chopping block. Schools that receive an F, D, or three consecutive C’s or below — this year, 217 schools — can be closed, according to the department’s guidelines.

Seven of the schools landed on the list after drawing three straight C grades from the city. Five of the schools earned B’s two years ago, when many city schools saw their grades plummet because of changes to the way state tests were scored.

A teacher at J.H.S. 166 in Brooklyn, reached before the city announced that the school was on the early engagement list, said she thought she school was improving after a rocky year under the specter of turnaround.

“The students are working towards something this year. It’s a very positive tone,” said the teacher, who asked to remain anonymous because she was not authorized to speak about the school. Principal Maria Ortega, who narrowly avoided losing her job under turnaround, declined to comment.

The teacher did warn that teachers started the year with very little time to plan after many had left for the summer expecting not to return, something the city could hold against the school when assessing its likeliness to improve.

The department has not yet turned its attention toward high schools, whose progress reports will come out later this month.

Officials from both the teachers and principals union decried the early engagement process as being too little, too late for the long-struggling schools.

“We are troubled by the DOE’s statement that it is beginning conversations with these schools now to gain a better understanding of what is happening,” said principals union president Ernest Logan in a statement. “These conversations should have occurred before these schools ever arrived at this point.”

“Tweed’s measurement system depends almost completely on standardized tests, and its ‘engagement’ process does little or nothing to help struggling schools improve,” said UFT President Michael Mulgrew, also in a statement. “Unfortunately, closing schools — rather than fixing them — remains the centerpiece of Mayor Bloomberg’s education strategy.”

The schools undergoing early engagement:

J.H.S. Jackie Robinson, Manhattan
M.S. 45/STARS Prep Academy, Manhattan
P.S. 133 Fred R Moore, Manhattan
P.S. 132 Juan Pablo Duarte, Manhattan
P.S. 154 Jonathan D Hyatt, Bronx
M.S. 203, Bronx
Young Leaders Elementary School, Bronx
Performance School, Bronx
J.H.S. 125 Henry Hudson, Bronx
Bronx Mathematics Preparatory School, Bronx
P.S. 64 Pura Belpre, Bronx
P.S. 132 Garret Morgan, Bronx
P.S. 230 Roland Patterson, Bronx
M.S. 142 John Philip Sousa, Bronx
Globe School for Environmental Research, Bronx
P.S. 6 West Farms, Bronx
P.S. 50, Bronx
The School of Science and Applied Learning, Bronx
P.S. 67 Charles Dorsey, Brooklyn
P.S. 167 The Parkway, Brooklyn
Middle School for Academic and Social Excellence, Brooklyn
J.H.S. 166 George Gershwin, Brooklyn
P.S. 174 Dumont, Brooklyn
P.S. 224 Hale Woodruff, Brooklyn
J.H.S. 291 Roland Hayes, Brooklyn
J.H.S. 302 Rafael Cordero, Brooklyn
I.S. 349 Math, Science, and Technology, Brooklyn
P.S. 73 Thomas Boyland, Brooklyn
P.S. 165 Ida Posner, Brooklyn
General D. Chappie James Middle School of Science, Brooklyn
J.H.S. 8 Richard Grossley, Queens
P.S. 140 Edward Ellington, Queens
I.S. 59 Springfield Gardens, Queens
P.S. 156 Laurelton, Queens
Mott Haven Academy Charter School, Bronx
Bronx Community Charter School, Bronx

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.