bailed out

City plans to fast-track school repairs with emergency funds

Chancellor Walcott talks to parents at P.S. 207, which will remain closed until at least 2013 and could be much longer. Red trailers parked outside the school contain 35,000 gallons of water and oil that leaked into the school during Sandy, Walcott said.

Six city schools that were damaged by Hurricane Sandy won’t reopen until 2013, according to the Department of Education’s latest update on its recovery from the storm.

But the rest of the schools displaced by the storm, which on Tuesday will number 37, will likely be able to move back to their buildings by the end of November.

To keep pace with the timeline, Mayor Bloomberg today announced an emergency plan to add $500 million in capital funds, $200 million of which will go directly toward paying for repairs at the remaining schools. The other $300 million will help repair damages sustained to hospital buildings. Bloomberg made the announcement at P.S. 207, a school in Queens that was damaged so severely that officials aren’t able to pinpoint a reopening date.

“To our knowledge, New York City government has never before made such an emergency provision for additional capital spending because of a natural disaster and certainly not one of this size,” he said.

The budget modification is expected to be approved by the City Council tomorrow.

So far the city has spent $134 million in emergency spending, and Bloomberg said he expects that number to eventually “run into billions of dollars” as the city picks up more responsibilities that federal authorities and volunteers are handling right now.

At the education department, a breakneck pace of repairs continued over the weekend, leaving five schools ready to return to their home buildings on Tuesday. They join 10 others that were set for a Tuesday homecoming last week. All of the new additions, which will affect 6,000 students, are on the hard-hit Rockaway Peninsula, where many families are displaced from their homes as well.

Low attendance numbers last week suggest that thousands of students have not been to school for as many as two full weeks. Reopening schools, or at least getting students back into school buildings, has been at the forefront of the city’s recovery efforts.

Seventeen schools are expected to move home a week from today, and 14 more are set for a Nov. 30 homecoming. That leaves half a dozen schools that will continue to operate in relocated space until the end of the year.

Five of the schools will reopen on Jan. 2, the day schools resume after the winter vacation. They are P.S. 256’s annex in Queens; P.S. 288 in Brooklyn; P.S. 105 in Queens; and Millennium High School and an outpost of P226, which share a building on Broad Street in Manhattan.

The sixth school, P.S. 207 in Howard Beach, does not yet have a firm date for move-in. The department says only that it will happen “later in 2013,” and oil is still being pumped out of the building’s basement now, according to a spokeswoman, Erin Hughes.

Large red trailers outside of the school this afternoon contained 35,000 gallons of a mixture of flood water and leaked oil that has so far been pumped from the school’s basement, officials said.

Speaking in P.S. 207’s lobby this afternoon, Mayor Bloomberg said the school faces additional repairs because of damage to the school’s electrical system.

“It’s likely the building’s electrical wiring will have to be substantially or completely replaced,” Bloomberg said.

In the meantime, P.S. 207 students have been shuttled to two different host schools since last week and parents outside of the school said today that they’re still getting used to the new transportation plans that the department has drawn up. Fifth grade students and older have attended school in Long Island City, a 45-minute bus drive.

Until now, the department had also been unable to provide transportation for all students from the peninsula to their relocated schools, but as of Tuesday, the city will run 7 a.m. shuttle buses from each of the closed schools to their new sites. The department will also transport students who attend high schools in the Far Rockaway Campus from the subway if they arrive from elsewhere in the city. The improved transportation services are likely to boost attendance figures at the relocated schools, which last week were abysmal, though increased mobility and major challenges at home make attendance unlikely to equal its pre-storm rates.

Despite P.S. 207 being the only school without a firm timeline for reopening, the parents said they were pleased to hear that the school might have a chance of opening at all this school year.

“We were under the impression that they might condemn the school for the rest of the year,” said Marlene Casillo.

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.