in the streets

In a South Bronx district, parents want action on failing schools

P.S. 64 parents Symone Williams (right) and Natasha Campbell outside of the school Wednesday afternoon.

Frustrated parents in one South Bronx district took to the streets Wednesday to raise awareness about the disproportionately high number of failing schools in the neighborhood.

Among their requests: for the city to turn toward District 9 more often when deciding which schools to close.

At P.S. 64, on 170th street, the parents protested during dismissal on a sidewalk just outside the courtyard where parents picked up their children. Next they marched up Webster Avenue to a building that houses two middle schools on the state’s latest list of lowest-performing schools.

The protest struck a nerve with several parents at the elementary school. They collided with the protesters on the sidewalk during dismissal, prompting some to share their own frustrations with P.S. 64. Valerie Fernandez said the homework that her fifth-grade son brought home hardly prepared him to think and write critically. One assignment he had earlier this year was to color in the countries of a world map, Fernandez said.

“I think they should give the principal a chance, but cut the staff,” said Fernandez. “The teachers, they just wait until they can go home.”

Another parent, Natasha Campbell, described the notebook that her daughter, who is in second-grade, brought home from school. Several assignments called for her to write her name down in the notebook over and over again, and now the pages are filled with her name, Campbell said.

P.S. 64 was one of a dozen schools in District 9 to land on the newest state list of schools in need of aggressive intervention this fall. Of the 123 city schools tagged as failing by the state’s new accountability system, more schools came from the district than any other in the city.

District 9 parent organizers recognized many familiar names: Under the outgoing No Child Left Behind accountability system, 26 of the district’s schools were labeled “in need of improvement.”

The new “focus schools” designation makes the schools eligible for federally funded overhauls, but to parents with students in the schools, it is a reminder of how little has changed in the seven years since the district was first categorized as “in need of improvement” under NCLB.

Only about a quarter of students in the district scored proficient on this year’s state reading tests, making it the second-lowest-performing district in the the city for a fifth consecutive year (nearby District 7 ranked last).

Yet a decade of aggressive efforts by the Bloomberg administration to replace struggling schools with new schools, many of them charter schools, have largely passed over District 9. The city has closed about 150 schools and opened nearly the same number of charter schools. District 9’s share: Just five closures and six charter schools.

“In this neighborhood, we get the leftovers, because of where we are,” said Yoshika Buchanan, who joined in Wednesday’s protest. “That’s not fair.”

For the last year, organizers have been working to get officials at both the city Department of Education and the State Education Department to commit to improving the district.

“The help we need is for the voices of parents, teachers, students to be taken seriously,” said Julia Allen, lead organizer for the district’s Parent Action Committee, which organized this week’s protest. “We are generating our own district improvement plan because the district has been unable to for all these years.”

Allen and the Department of Education agree that P.S. 64 is one of the schools that requires an aggressive intervention model. The city has listed P.S. 64 as one of its elementary schools that it could begin phasing out next year, after fewer than one in five of its students passed the state reading exam last year.

On Wednesday, parents and organizers from P.S. 64 suggested that closure wouldn’t be such a bad idea.

Principal Tara O’Brien and District 9 Superintendent Dolores Esposito declined to comment at a meeting for parents about the school’s status on Monday evening. But teachers at the school said high turnover — at least 19 teachers have left since June — and a large number of high-needs students contributed to the school’s struggles. The school is rife with security issues and bullying, parents said. Teachers said there had been tension with the administration and several people spoke of one incident last year that elevated to a physical confrontation and ended with a teacher being removed from the school in handcuffs.

Campbell said she did not want to see the school closed because her daughter liked the school. She said she thought it could be improved if the parents were given more opportunities to participate in activities.

But Buchanan, who transferred her daughter to a higher-rated school in the district this year, disagreed.

“I believe that P.S. 64 needs a fresh start,” she said.

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.