engagement party

City aims second set of parent involvement plans at academics

Chancellor Dennis Walcott today updated parent coordinators and parent leaders about new plans to engage families in helping children make academic progress.

A year after announcing new efforts to cultivate parents as “partners” in supporting students’ academic progress, Chancellor Dennis Walcott fleshed out some of the details in a speech today.

Speaking to parent coordinators and other parent leaders at Manhattan’s High School of Fashion Industries, Walcott announced that the city would open its Parent Academy next month with a training session in Brooklyn about how to make the most of parent-teacher conferences.

As we reported last week, work behind the scenes on the Parent Academy, modeled after a similar program in Charlotte, N.C., picked up this summer and fall. The city contracted Long Island University to run the academy and in August placed job ads for a “Parent Academy Project Director.” It also quietly launched a website inviting schools to be part of the “inaugural class,” and Walcott said today that 100 schools had already responded. A preliminary version of a website for the program has also gone live, though not at the URL advertised on the invitation.

Over the course of the year, Walcott said, the academy will include as many as 2,000 parents in 15 borough-wide workshops and also train smaller groups of parents on “partnership standards” that he said last year would be created.

He also reiterated a promise to improve the process by which district parent council members are elected. The councils have few statutory powers but are seen as one of few ways that parents can influence Department of Education policy decisions. Last year, elections to fill the councils went so badly that they had to be redone.

Walcott said the department would make the process more transparent by putting information about eligibility and elections on a single website set to launch next week. Last year, “with the lack of information, people weren’t even aware that voting was open,” Juan Rosales, the department official in charge of engaging the councils, said after the speech.

But for the second year in a row, Walcott made clear that his conception of family engagement stays close to the classroom.

“I cannot over-emphasize the important role you play,” he said, according to his prepared comments. “When you are involved and support the important work going on in the classroom, your children are more likely to succeed.”

This year, new curriculum standards are changing what happens in many city classrooms, and most of the new initiatives Walcott announced aim to inform parents about the standards, known as the Common Core.

Walcott said he would kick off a “webinar” series for parents with a training on the standards, and he also announced the creation of new “Expect Success” guides, publications that describe the city’s academic expectations and suggest ways that parents can help their children meet the standards.

He even gave the parents a script for generating Common Core-aligned conversations in the home.

“There are many ways to reinforce learning at home. Start by talking more. Get your child’s opinions about local, national, and international events,” Walcott said. “Check in every day and ask questions. Ask them: Do you feel like you’re struggling in any of your classes? Are you reading challenging non-fiction texts outside the classroom?”

Parents and educators said during a panel discussion that followed Walcott’s speech that parents are hungry for more information about what their children should be learning and how to help them get ahead.

“There is nothing worse than being in a situation where your child is in fifth grade and you say, ‘If I had only known last year, if I had only known at the end of eighth grade,'” said Maura McGovern, a guidance counselor who helped produce the Expect Success guides. “We wanted parents to know ahead of time so they don’t have those little shocks and surprises.”

Monique Lindsay, a Brooklyn mother who sits on the Citywide Council on High Schools, said the guides would be useful when communication between children and parents falls short.

“Sometimes it feels like the student thinks they know everything and the parents feel like they know nothing,” she said, adding that the guides are meant “to keep us as parents current.”

Walcott left some of last year’s promises hanging today. He signaled that family engagement standards had in fact been created, but he did not mention last year’s promise to assess schools based on how well they involve parents. He also did explain what guidance, if any, had come from a parent committee he said last year would be convened to help middle schools. Department officials said last week that the committee met three times last year and included a total of 15 parents, principals, parent coordinators, and representatives from local nonprofits.

The full text of Walcott’s prepared remarks are below.

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.