above water

Schools reopen with low attendance, but officials are optimistic

Flanked by city officials, Mayor Bloomberg updated reporters on the hurricane relief effort from P.S. 195 Manhattan Beach, a South Brooklyn school that was damaged in the hurricane.

Today marked the first day back to school for most city students, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg championed their attendance rate. But the figure he cited — 85 percent — didn’t count the 75,000 students who weren’t in attendance because their schools were temporarily closed, or hundreds of schools that did not report their attendance in time for his press conference.

Despite lingering complications from Hurricane Sandy, including power and transit woes, the majority of students and teachers invited to return to school today for the first time in a week made it. And several buildings reopened this morning despite sustaining massive damages a week ago.

For the site of his daily update on the city’s hurricane relief effort, Bloomberg picked one of those schools — P.S. 195 Manhattan Beach, a southern Brooklyn school that flooded and originally seemed unlikely to reopen to students today.

Flanked by other city officials, Bloomberg and Chancellor Dennis Walcott said the number of closed schools is shrinking as more schools that were damaged or lost power slowly receive the repairs they need.

On Sunday, buildings too damaged to reopen contained 57 schools; Bloomberg said that number is 48 today. And just 19 schools remain without power, he said, down from more than 100 over the weekend.

One of the schools to which teachers will return on Tuesday is John Dewey High School, which Walcott cited last week as one of the most severely damaged in the city after an electrical fire during the storm. Department officials said the School Construction Authority had been able to install a generator and get Dewey’s boiler to work, obviating a planned three-building co-location.

Six of the other eight schools that will reopen to teachers on Tuesday and students on Wednesday are in Brooklyn, and two are on Staten Island. A full list of them is here.

But attendance was predictably lower than usual for the schools that did reopen. At the 62 percent of schools that had reported attendance by 1 p.m. — which likely did not include schools in the most disrupted parts of the city — about 85 percent of students were in class, city officials said. And 94 percent of teachers made it.

The city is also still grappling with other thorny problems as officials prepare to get the rest of the schools up and running by Wednesday. Among them is the question of how to craft new bus routes for thousands of students whose schools will open in different school buildings on Wednesday, and the question of how teachers will establish classroom routines again with students who may have lost electricity and other essentials last week. As of this afternoon, Bloomberg said about 174 public housing buildings around the city were still without power.

“Those kids are going to have to get special help, and teachers should be cognizant of that,” he said.

He said city workers are also racing to prepare the eight school buildings that are operating as shelters to reopen to students on Wednesday—a feat that will likely involve a massive cleaning effort and a plan for consolidating the remaining shelter residents to one or two school buildings.

Sources in Brooklyn say Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School is likely to be one of the schools that remain open to both students and shelter residents on Wednesday. Bloomberg said that if this happens, the students and residents will be kept on separate floors.

“We will make an accommodation if we have to,” he told reporters when asked whether the schools will be ready by then. Bloomberg credits the city’s school custodians and electrical engineers for making headway.

“The custodians did a phenomenal job,” he said. “The fact that we could open schools today is a testament to them,” he said, with a nod to Hector Figueroa, leader of the school custodians’ union.

P.S. 195 Principal Bernadette Toomey said the day had been a success, from her perspective, despite the challenges. P.S. 195 held two assemblies and lined up guidance counselors and a school psychologist to talk to students whose families experienced the brunt of the storm. The school also arranged small-group counseling for students to “express loss and [discuss] the relocation,” Toomey said in an interview. “It’s a lot on a big plate for small children.”

“They were able to meet with the students on an indvididual basis, and they just got right into the swing of things,” she added. “I know they’re missing a lot, a lot of them were heavily impacted, but I think they wanted to return to some normalcy and things that look familiar and comfortable, and warm. ”

She said some students had to relocate to other parts of Brooklyn or outside the borough with their families last week, and it put a strain on her youngest students. Students seemed cheerful as they spilled out of the school’s Irwin Avenue entrances shortly after 3 p.m.

“We wrote about what happened on the day of hurricane and drew pictures,” said third-grader Victoria Kutcher, whose family has been living with relatives since the hurricane, which knocked out power to her neighborhood.

Another Southern Brooklyn school where many students have homes that still lack power or heat, or experienced flooding last week is Sheepshead Bay High School. It opened to students who could make it to school this morning, and counselors surveyed students about their needs during the first period, which was extended to 90 minutes.

“We sent our staff to give students assessments of their immediate needs,” said Robin Schlenger, a site coordinator for Counseling in Schools, a community-based organization that partners with Sheepshead Bay High School to offer regular counseling to students. “The guidance counselors, CBO counselors and social workers spent a lot of time looking for students and talking to them,” throughout  the day.

Like many Southern Brooklyn families, the students’ needs were predictable, but important, she explained; many said they still lack electricity, water, heat, and Internet, which will make it harder for them to get school work done.

Schools whose buildings have been newly cleared to reopen

P.S. 276 Louis Marshall, Brooklyn
P.S. 277 Gerritsen Beach, Brooklyn
John Dewey High School, Brooklyn
Liberation Diploma Plus, Brooklyn
P.S. 126 Jacob August Riis, Brooklyn
I.S. 024 Myra S. Barnes, Staten Island
The Richard Hungerford School, Staten Island
I.S. 98 Bay Academy, Brooklyn
P.S. 771, Brooklyn

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.