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.”

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.

summer mix tape

Ten stories you might have missed over the summer (and should read now as a new school year begins)

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Stand for Children received funding to support parent education.

There is no such thing as time off from covering education. While school doors were shuttered, plenty happened this summer on the Colorado education beat. Here, we’ve compiled stories that we hope prove useful as you ease back into your fall routines.

We’ve got your immunization data right here … 

For the second year, Chalkbeat tracked down immunization data for more than 1,200 schools in Colorado’s largest school districts. Our database revealed that Boulder remains a hotspot for the anti-vaccination movement, students in districts with racial and income diversity are more likely to get their shots and nearly half of schools in the database did a better job this year tracking students’ immunization records. Read our news story about the findings, check out these six charts that dig into the numbers and search for school-level data here.

Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg reflects on his sabbatical (a break not everyone appreciated)

In June, Denver Public Schools’ longtime schools chief returned from a six-month unpaid sabbatical in South America with his family. “It made us appreciate the extraordinary resources we have here,” he said in an interview about his experience.

A milestone for Colorado charter schools on diversity, but not so much on integration

For the first time, Colorado’s charter schools educated a larger proportion of racial and ethnic minorities than district-run schools, a state report showed. We took a closer look and found that does not mean charter schools are more integrated.

Race, policing and education during a summer on edge

This summer sadly provided no shortage of violence and heartache over issues that sometimes feel like they’re tearing America apart at the seams. We sought to bring some local perspective (and wisdom) to the debate by talking to an ambitious Manual High School student who took up a bullhorn at Denver street protests and to Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn.

A middle school’s last-ditch effort to save itself 

An Adams County middle school running out of time to improve has placed its bet on more challenging, more personal teaching — and zero test preparation. Watch Chalkbeat later this week for a report on whether these efforts paid off in the form of improved state test scores. (Hopefully … the data are set to be made public Thursday).

Guess which Colorado school district had a high proportion of teachers designated to lose tenure …

Compared with other large Colorado school districts, Denver Public Schools had a higher proportion of teachers set to lose tenure under a sweeping educator effectiveness law passed six years ago. We surveyed big districts about one of the consequences of Senate Bill 191.

Too darn hot to teach and learn 

As part of its big bond request of voters this fall, Denver Public Schools wants to try to cool off some of its hottest schools. We took a look at where the mercury soars the highest and found that in 12 of the 18 hottest buildings — some of which house more than one school — the number of students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch exceeds the district average.

But the University Club has a lovely lunch menu (and squash courts, too)…  

What if the State Board of Education held a not-so-public meeting with the education commissioner at a private club downtown to prioritize goals, but didn’t get much of anything accomplished? That happened.

What we know — and don’t know — about Colorado remediation rates

Colorado’s college remediation rates inched upward after years of steady decline, a disheartening development. On top of that, we’re not getting the full picture, either, because of incomplete school-level numbers and non-existent district-level data.

Diet Coke: Coming soon to a high school vending machine near you? 

Despite opposition from advocacy groups, Colorado appears headed toward lifting a seven-year ban on diet soda in high schools. The rule change would clear the way for diet soda to be sold in high school vending machines and school stores, though districts could decide not to stock the drinks. We covered the issue before and after the State Board of Education’s initial vote.