stuck in the middle

Middle schools weakest in arts, too, city finds in annual report

The city's Annual Arts in Schools Report shows that fewer middle schools have reported offering each arts discipline every year since 2010, according to the city's Annual Arts in Schools Report.

One in five city eighth-graders graduated from middle school last year without completing the state’s basic requirements for arts education.

That data point is one of many contained in the city’s Annual Arts in Schools Report, which tallies arts instruction, staff, and spending.

At an event for arts advocates this morning to launch the report, Department of Education officials emphasized that schools’ time devoted to and money spent on arts instruction held steady or increased since last year. But they said there remain major areas where improvement is needed.

“We have to do more work with middle schools,” said Chancellor Dennis Walcott, echoing a sentiment he has expressed many times since launching an initiative aimed at boosting the city’s lagging middle schools last year. He said the department would convene a special committee to study arts in middle schools and make recommendations for changes.

Just 81 percent of last year’s eighth-graders graduated having fulfilled the state’s arts requirement of one credit in two different disciplines. In 2010, that figure was 85 percent. And the requirements are weaker than what the state originally set out: Walcott said the city had gotten a waiver from the state to allow dance and theater classes to count toward the graduation requirement, in addition to music and visual art.

“Lots of students will never have the opportunity to apply to a rigorous high school program” because they do not have adequate preparation in middle school, said Gregg Betheil, the department’s director of school programs and partnerships.

One possible recommendation of the committee, Walcott said, could be to introduce more screened arts programs at the middle school level.

Equity of access has arts advocates concerned, too. Eric Pryor, executive director of the Center for Arts Education, said in a statement that even though there are some positive signs in the arts report, “the opportunity gap that exists in city public schools has barely budged, leaving far too many students without access to quality instruction in the arts.”

The issue persists in high school. “We are seeing a decrease in the ability of schools to offer multiple arts disciplines,” said Paul King, director of the Department of Education’s arts office.

The Center for Arts Education joined other arts advocates this fall in calling on the city to expand its accountability system to include arts instruction. Only then, the groups said in a recent letter, will schools feel compelled to offer quality arts programming to all students.

King said today that he thought academics have edged out the arts at some middle schools. “I think middle schools are under incredible pressure” to post academic improvements, he said. “It’s an issue of scheduling and prioritization.”

The solution, King said, was to “shape school leaders’ thinking” so they understand that arts instruction can boost student performance in other subjects, by engaging students and providing a different avenue for literacy work.

A major obstacle to making changes in middle schools or elsewhere is the city’s budget situation. According to the report, 62 percent of principals citywide reported to the department last year that they faced serious challenges in budgeting for arts education. And even though schools slightly increased their spending on the arts, they actually shed teachers.

In the tough budget climate, schools have turned increasingly to outside organizations to provide arts programming, King said, with the number of arts organizations working in city schools up by 25 percent since the first round of budget cuts in 2008. While much of the instruction provided by external partners is strong, he said, the department cannot say which organizations do the best job.

“It’s something we don’t have the capacity to effectively monitor,” King said, adding that developing standards for assessing whether students have learned in their arts classes is a project the department has only just started to tackle in an initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Education.

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.