network diagnostics

Tensions flare as officials defend their school support systems

Councilman Jackson waives at Shael Polakow-Suransky (far right) during a hearing on the networks.

Facing criticism that the Department of Education does not hold the organizations responsible for supporting schools accountable for their success, Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky told members of the City Council today that the opposite is true.

In fact, he said during a heated hearing about the department’s network support structure, he has changed the leadership of 15 of the department’s 55 networks.

“Fifteen of those [former network leaders] are people that I did not have confidence in and we wanted someone to do better,” Polakow-Suranksy told the city council members during a lengthy hearing. “There is very clear accountability.”

That revelation was one of many data points he and other top officials shared this afternoon at a City Council Education Committee hearing on the school networks and their nebulous roles supervising each of the city’s 1,700 schools. The networks fit into a complicated and at times unintuitive picture of the school system’s structural make-up. They were created in 2007, several years after Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office and his former schools chancellor, Joel Klein, dissolved the 32 Community School Districts that once supervised the city’s schools and made academic and operational decisions.

Now, instead of being placed into networks based on their schools’ geography, principals are able to select which networks to join based on the philosophies and support systems they offer. And in turn, networks play the dual role of helping schools improve and communicating with the department’s superintendents who decide what teachers and principals should get tenure or be replaced.

Under duress from Councilman Robert Jackson, the committee chair, and several other councilmembers who spent hours grilling him on the ways the department hold schools and networks accountable, Polakow-Suransky conceded that the department should be more transparent about the role of the networks.

“The larger point you’re making—have we not done a good job sharing with the public all the information we have and can share—is right,” he said.

The information has never been a secret, department officials said, but they have never made an effort to make it public, for example by posting it on the department’s website in this level of detail.

To keep tabs on the networks, department officials said they evaluate them in six areas, from the rigor of their academics to their efforts to engage families, and then share those evaluations with school principals who may  be considered whether to join or leave a network. Beyond that, officials shared few new pieces of information on the networks, whose day-to-day operations have been largely unknown to the public since they were created in 2007.

The details shared this afternoon included a list of the 55 networks, which are organized into five clusters, and the names of each of their leaders, a map of where the networks’ have their offices, and a chart detailing how the department has funded the networks over the years. The main takeaway of that chart is that funding for the networks has decreased since 2007, from $250 million to $181 million in 2011. Those funds pay the salaries of the cluster and network personnel, the district superintendents, special education committees and partnership support organizations.

Officials also provided a chart of the structure of the networks, which each have 15 employees ranging from the leader and deputy leader to operations consultants and academic “achievement” coaches. The list of  their jobs is long, according to the powerpoint presentation officials presented; the networks are in charge of providing targeted professional development to school staff in need, creating reports on special education, making sure schools can access data on their students and operations, and educating families about their children’s education.

As Polakow-Suransky walked the committee through the powerpoint presentation on the networks, Jackson interrupted him several times to criticize the amount of time it took for the department to submit requested information to the City Council. Jackson repeatedly told Polakow-Suransky that he would have to make more information about the networks public “right now,” and criticized Polakow-Suransky’s sometimes-vague responses.

“You’re getting me a little annoyed here,” Jackson said at one point, waving his arms at Polakow-Suransky.

“Likewise,” Polakow-Suransky responded.

After he spoke, a network leader, a superintendent and a school principal recounted stories of how they help the schools under their purview, and how they work with each other.

“I am personally in schools working with principals almost every single day,” said Alinson Sheehan, the Children First Network 102 leader. She told a story of how her network, which includes 33 schools from Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx, supported one struggling Manhattan high school with an ineffective leader,  which she did not name.

Serapha Cruz, the principal of the Bronx School of Science Inquiry, a middle school, said her network, CFN 411, has helped her avoid closure.

“An achievement coach worked in our school with our teachers to create a much calmer school environment,” she said. “Five years later our school is a much safer place, with 95 percent attendance. Networks can have a profound and positive impact on schools.”

“My team had been supporting this school, incuding weekly meetings with the principal, the liaons helped with attendance interventions for students, and i also did classroom interventions, but the school was still struggling. despite our intentions the supports didn’t seem to be improving thelearning environment at the school. ”

Before deciding the principal ought to be replaced, She sought the advice of Tamika Matheson, the district superintendent of Manhattan High Schools. “Things aren’t perfect… but student attendance is up and teacher morale is also up.”

Even as Matheson, Sheehan and Cruz recounted the good that can come from a strong network-school-superintendency relationship, city council members remained skeptical of the networks’ value.

“I talk to all my principals, [and] I don’t know anyone who is satisfied with the current system,” Councilman Mark Weprin said. “Give me a superintendent and ten staffers and I will run my school district better than you are.”

Polakow-Suransky countered that he was familiar with many school administrators who are much more satisfied with the current network structure than they were a decade ago, when the schools were run by community districts. But Weprin was unconvinced.

School leaders, he said, “are afraid of their own shadows. They don’t want to do anything without checking behind them to make sure they’re not getting fired.”

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.