moving right along

As DOE eases back into its regular plans, some raise objections

Chancellor Dennis Walcott takes questions after the Panel for Educational Policy meeting.

The city postponed some Panel for Educational Policy votes to next month after Hurricane Sandy threw the Department of Education’s public hearing schedule off track. But at the panel’s monthly meeting Thursday night, several members argued that the department was getting back to its regular business too quickly.

“We need to give people time to recover from this tragedy that we all have experienced in some way or another,” said Kelvin Diamond, the new Brooklyn borough president’s representative on the panel.

Diamond proposed a resolution to suspend all public hearings until 2013 for Brooklyn schools. Hearings about four proposals to co-locate or shrink schools in Brooklyn were rescheduled because they were supposed to take place during the week when all schools were closed because of the storm. Hearings about another 6 proposals for changes to Manhattan and Bronx schools are set for between now and Dec. 20, when the panel is to meet next. The hearings must happen before the panel can vote on the proposals.

Diamond said it would be unfair to hold hearings when many Brooklyn residents cannot focus on changes to how school buildings will be used next year.

“They’ve been hit hard. We just can’t have a machine run through them,” he said. “I have a [Community Education Council] member who is grieving, who attended a funeral and didn’t have time to respond to a letter” from the city.

Other panel members jumped to support the resolution, even suggesting that it be broadened in scope.

“It’s highly inappropriate” to hold hearings in the wake of hurricane, Patrick Sullivan, the Manhattan borough president’s representative, told officials.

“The administration is taking advantage of the fact that people can’t get to the hearings, can’t voice their opposition,” he added. “I would support the resolution not just for the specific Brooklyn proposals but for all the proposals that were moved to the December meeting.”

Hearings about six other proposals, for schools in Manhattan and the Bronx, were also rescheduled because of the storm.

But city officials said there is not enough time in the year to postpone hearings further, especially because state law requires the city to follow a rigid public notification timeline when proposing that schools be colocated, opened, or closed. The panel, which is dominated by mayoral appointees and has never sided against the city, voted down the resolution.

Chancellor Dennis Walcott said holding the hearings and taking up the proposals would help the department return to normalcy after several weeks when the department has been engaged in an all-hands-on-deck effort to figure out how to serve thousands of students whose schools were damaged.

“Part of the balancing act we’re trying to do is be sympathetic to what’s going on in New York City right now.” Walcott said. “While we’re balancing that part of life, we also have to balance the reality that life does go on as well. Part of that is to make sure we maintain the schedule that will allow us to conduct the business.”

He and other officials noted that the city would run the risk of being unable to fulfill its schools agenda for the year if it waiting any longer than planned to vote on the proposals, which would determine where new schools are sited within existing schools.

By the new year the city must also begin the process of holding hearings for schools it wants to close. “Early engagement” meetings for some elementary and middle schools at risk of closure had been scheduled for last week, and the department had also planned to name the high schools that might be closed during the week that schools were closed.

Debate over Diamond’s resolution did not end after the panel voted it down. The next item on the agenda, school budgets, had been deferred from October’s meeting because members of the education department’s budget office were ill at that time, officials said.

The explanation prompted Sullivan to renew his support for the postponement resolution.

“So we have hundreds of thousands of people across the city grieving and we cannot defer the people’s business … but one person is sick, and we have to defer the budget vote for the school system?” he asked.

“We’re going to stay on topic,” a budget secretary responded, prompting a raised-voice squabble between Sullivan and Walcott.

“Madame Chair, may I ask my next question?” Sullivan said in almost a shout, repeatedly as Walcott asked him to stop talking.

“You’re not asking a question about the budget, you’re giving your opinion in linking people who are grieving to someone who was sick,” Walcott said. “Patrick, you’re not going to bully people. … Stop being dramatic and ask a question.”

“Why can’t you postpone the other votes because people are grieving?” Sullivan responded, prompting some applause from the thin PEP audience.

As expected, the panel, which met in Queens this month, approved all department proposals and contracts up for a vote, including a new, one-year contract for Champion Learning, a tutoring service that lost its contract with the city earlier this year after it was found to have billed the city millions of dollars for services it might not have delivered.

Most of the attendees had little to say about the disruptions that Sandy has wrought on the city’s schools. Instead, parents turned out to lobby for more gifted programs in Queens, and to support the co-location of a new Achievement First charter school. The panel also approved a co-location proposal that would require P.S. 15 in the Bronx to cede three classrooms, to the dismay of school leaders who attended the meeting to protest the plan.

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.