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Graphics students are apprehensive on first day back to school

Students walk to the High School of Graphic Communication Arts Wednesday morning.

Students from the High School of Graphic Communication Arts and several small high schools returned to their Hell’s Kitchen building for the first time since Hurricane Sandy with trepidation.

They had heard on the local news and read on Facebook that their school building was in disarray after serving as a shelter for more than 1,000 people displaced by the hurricane which destroyed homes and flooded many parts of the city. Many received emails from their principals and teachers reassuring them that the schools would be ready for them to return to normal, but some weren’t convinced their classes were ready to pick up where they left off on Friday, Oct. 26, the last time the schools’ held classes.

“Yeah, I’m worried. It’s pretty disgusting,” said Yaina Reyes, a junior at Graphics, referring to conditions she observed in a news report about the school’s hurricane shelter earlier this week.

City officials originally planned to reopen Graphics to students Monday, while keeping its hundreds of shelter residents in place, even as Principal Brendan Lyons petitioned the department to send his students somewhere else on Monday, citing the turmoil that sharing the space might cause.

“If it’s not sanitary, it will be sanitary,” Chancellor Dennis Walcott told reporters at the time. But as reports of the school’s disarray trickled in, officials changed their plans. Instead of opening it to students on Monday, the city began shutting the Graphics shelter down earlier this week and relocating evacuees who had been staying there. Wednesday marks the school’s first day back in operation.

Of the seven other school buildings that have served as shelters, four others are opening today with small numbers of evacuees still living inside. Three others are not yet ready for students to return, but city officials said on Tuesday they hoped that would change by Thursday.

As Reyes rounded the corner of 49th Street and 9th Avenue en route to the entrance, she added that the large Career and Technical Education high school’s problems stretch far beyond the challenges of past week, and could get worse now that students are back. School leaders came under fire from students and staff last month when scheduling problems dominated the first weeks of school.

“Graphics is such a mess anyway. People are getting more reckless because of the principal, and this hurricane messed up the whole flow even more.”

Sophomore Ladre Grier said she was also more worried about resuming classes than about sanitation in the building. “I’m just glad they had the place to stay in,” she said. Grier said she was able to catch up on homework in all of her classes assigned before the hurricane hit, but did not receive any emails from teachers instructing her on how to prepare for the day’s lessons.

Another Graphics senior said he had been able to do new classwork in the past week, but only because he is enrolled in an online credit recovery class.

Francyne Villavicencio, a senior, said she did not receive updates from her teachers during the hurricane either, and found that discouraging. “Some of us are seniors and this is the year we need to be up on everything,” she said.

Despite the knowledge that she still had courses and Regents exams to pass before graduation this year, Villavicencio said she was “not looking forward” to returning to school today because of lingering concerns about how the school held up while serving as a shelter. But her friend Ryan Santos, a junior at the Business of Sports High School, another school in the building, told her he received a reassuring email from administrators yesterday.

“They said they were cleaning up the school, making it more clean than it was already,” he said.

A Graphics administrator told GothamSchools in a message that the school was “a lot cleaner,” this morning than it was over the past week. But the staffer added that it would take yet more time for the school to return to normal.

“I think it will take a while,” the staffer wrote. But, “I know that many students are looking forward to going back to school because it’s a stable place for most of them.”

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.