Officials blanket Sandy-affected schools, where fallout persists

State Education Commissioner John King and City Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott talk to a P.S. 47 administrator.

At M.S. 53 on the Rockaway Peninsula, one student told Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch he was worried about taking the state tests after all the time he missed in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Up a flight of stairs at Village Academy, Chancellor Dennis Walcott heard from a seventh-grader named Kimberly who lost everything in the storm. In a few weeks, she’s relocating permanently to Rochester, said her principal, Doris Lee.

And at a third visit at P.S. 47 in Broad Channel, an island that helps connect the Far Rockaway peninsula to the Queens mainland, Walcott asked about 20 fourth-graders if they knew what “FEMA” meant.

Every hand went up.

Another 12 schools damaged by Sandy reopened on Monday, bringing 5,400 more students back to their original classrooms from temporary relocations in other school buildings. During a visit to another Far Rockaway school, P.S. 43, Mayor Bloomberg celebrated the news and noted that of 65 schools originally rendered “non-operational” because of power outages, damaged boilers, and flooded basements, all but 18 are back up and running.

At the 18 schools that are still in temporary sites, attendance on Monday was 80 percent, far higher than the 30-percent attendance rate that relocated schools were posting when school first reopened. Attendance was only slightly higher, 80.6 percent, at the 12 schools that moved home today. Citywide, attendance was 91.1 percent.

But as the hardest-hit schools reopen and attempt to return to normalcy, students, teachers, and administrators say Sandy is hardly in their rearview mirror. Walcott, Tisch, State Education Commissioner John King and other education officials spent Monday morning visiting some of the schools to find out how they’re doing now that school has resumed.

In Kimberly’s science class at Village Academy, for instance, the class reviewed the weather patterns and conditions and had to determine whether they should have evacuated before the storm hits.

The officials spent most of the morning popping in and out of classrooms, asking teachers and students about their work and talking about the storm.

The heat and electricity might be back on at P.S. 47, but Principal Ann Moynagh said things were hardly back to normal after the school returned to its home building last Tuesday. Moynagh told Walcott that she estimated about 50 percent of her school’s families had been displaced and she ticked off the new towns and states where they were enrolling: Montauk, Pennsylvania, Mastic, Monticello, Glendale.

There was still no internet or phone service available at the school and Moynagh said it had made getting in touch with students who remained absent from school.

“There are 55 kids who we’ve really been unable to account for,” Moynagh said of the 241-student school. “We’re still trying to figure a lot out.”

Bloomberg, Walcott, King, and Tisch were not the only officials to visit storm-affected schools on Monday, the three-week anniversary of the storm. Public Advocate Bill de Blasio visited I.S. 211 in Canarsie to meet maintenance workers who “worked around the clock for sixteen days after storm to repair the building and reopen it to students,” according to a release sent out by de Blasio’s office.

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.