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.”

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.