won't back down

As city is urging, hurricane days prompt some to learn at home

Second-grader Jacob Stone and fourth-grader Thomas Daniel trick-or-treated in Harlem with Wanda Fisher.

As it became clear on Wednesday that city schools would not be able to reopen this week because of damage to the city’s infrastructure, concern deepened at the Department of Education.

The department has ramped up a push to toughen academic standards this year, and a week off eight weeks into the semester — even if the days are likely to be made up later — could set back those efforts.

So department officials started compiling worksheets, suggested study schedules, test preparation guides, and lists of television shows with educational merit for students in each grade. On Wednesday night, they emailed principals to ask them to send a message alerting families to the new resources.

“We know that you and your students are eager to get back to school, and we are working hard to reopen schools as soon as possible,” Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky wrote in the message to families, which schools without power could have difficulty distributing. “In the meantime, we are encouraging students and their parents to continue learning at home during this time away from school.”

He suggested that families look to a silver lining in this week’s storm clouds: “Extra time at home is an opportunity to begin or continue planning for your future after graduation,” he wrote.

It’s an approach that some families and schools have taken since early in the week, when Hurricane Sandy’s danger passed for the many New Yorkers living out of the flood zone and in areas that retained electrical power.

When her nephews finished the homework they brought home on Friday, Wanda Fisher said her husband started quizzing them on mental math problems.

“You did math, multiplication, subtraction, division,” Fisher reminded the boys, second-grader Jacob Stone and fourth-grader Thomas Daniel, as they trick-or-treated in Harlem on Wednesday afternoon.

“And then we did plus/minus, and addition,” Stone added. A second-grader at P.S. 200, Stone said he had spent the days since the storm “reading and watching TV and seeing the hurricane.”

Other parents said they also had pushed their children to go above and beyond the homework assignments they received last week.

“I want them to be safe, but I want them to keep up with their education, too,” said Rosy Lopez, whose son Joseph is in first grade in Harlem’s P.S. 46. She said she had made sure Joseph had tackled all of the work that his teachers had sent home, which included social studies, and math. Then he read books about pirates and the movie “Toy Story.”

Some schools were able to give families additional assignments to keep students busy and engaged with academics.

Ralph Martinez, the principal of P.S. 89 in the Bronx, said his teachers had posted new homework assignments and practice materials online using the program Jupiter Grade. But he said not every student has internet access at home.

Martinez, who said he was not concerned about his Bronxwood school building because of its elevated location, had driven into Manhattan on Wednesday with his two sons, who attend Catholic school, to buy ice and stock up on other supplies. They live in New Jersey and have been without power since Tuesday.

“Many of our teachers live in Rockland County. Fortunately they’re okay, but without light, like I am,” Martinez said. “We have been emailing each other back and forth, almost every day.”

Not every school had taken that approach as of Wednesday, and some that were most affected by the storm are not likely to be able to. Department officials said 200 school buildings were “not operational” because of the storm, including 86 that did not have power.

“Because our building is closed and because many staff members are dealing with power outages at home, there will be no online assignments emailed to students, as some parents have inquired,” Millennium High School told families on Wednesday. “We recommend that students take the opportunity to do review work and read until school reopens.”

Millennium is housed in a Lower Manhattan office building whose basement was flooded. The building’s management company informed the school that no one would be able to enter until Monday, according to an email sent to parents on Wednesday from the school’s parent coordinator on behalf of its interim principal, who she said did not have power.

For high school seniors, the days off come at an opportune time: Most colleges have their first application deadline this week. (Many colleges have extended the deadline for students affected by Sandy.)

Adelya Baimukhamedova, a senior at the High School of Environmental Studies, said she had taken the time so far to catch up on assignments and put the finishing touches on college applications. No teachers assigned new homework since Friday, she said, but “they sent emails to reschedule exams. And I’m caught up with my homework now.”

Dyani Lebron, a fifth-grader at Manhattan’s P.S. 116, also said she had not heard from her teachers this week. She finished her weekend homework on Saturday under the assumption that this week would be a regular school week, so for now, she has been reading “The Mysterious Benedict Society.”

Lebron was walking on the Upper West Side Wednesday afternoon with Jocelyn Alvarez, a senior at Norman Thomas High School, which is in the process of phasing out and now has only an 11th and 12th grade this year. Alvarez said she is worried the storm could deepen the school’s difficulties.

“It’s already very disorganized,” Alvarez said. “Classes, schedules, students mixed in with the wrong grade. There are students who are behind and need to catch up, and this hurricane has made it worse.”

At more thriving schools, some teachers found innovative ways to trouble-shoot the situation. At Stuyvesant High School, which is located next to the West Side Highway and currently does not have power, longtime computer science teacher Mike Zamansky resumed classes for some of his students on Wednesday by online Google chat.

About 40 students watched the class live and others watched a recorded video afterwards, said Zamansky, who documented the experience on his blog.

“People keep talking about recorded lectures … but if anything, today’s experience just confirms to me that there’s nothing like an in-class teacher, particularly with a small group of students,” Zamansky wrote. “That said, I think this was a good experience and my students seem to agree. We spent part of an otherwise unproductive day in a productive manner and we’re planning on doing it again tomorrow.”

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.

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.