going postal

After struggles and Sandy, seniors celebrate applying to college

Senior Kristine Supple hands off a stack of college applications to a postal worker parked at the Franklin K. Lane high school campus. Behind her is Folorunso Fatukasi, a University of Connecticut-bound football star.

It was one thing for college-bound seniors at the Channel View School for Research to lose internet access and have to attend classes in a new location after Hurricane Sandy knocked their homes and school building out of commission.

But it was quite another to lose access to Jennifer Walter, the do-it-all school staff member whose job it is to help them get their college applications across the finish line. Walter’s home was flooded, along with the computers and printers she used to put together the finishing touches for students’ applications.

“She is a guidance counselor, a senior advisor. She’s everything. She’s a friend. She’s like an aunt,” Ivonne Aguiar said on Friday as she prepared to mail applications to a slew of colleges, including her top choice, Vanderbilt University.

Channel View is one of eight city high schools operated by NYC Outward Bound Schools where students send off their college applications with collective pomp and circumstance in a tradition that began last year at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School. A top Department of Education official has held up the ritual as a low-cost strategy for preparing students for college, and Chancellor Dennis Walcott joined students at WHEELS on Friday for his second college application-mailing ceremony as seven other schools, including Channel View, held marches of their own.

Channel View teachers said they adopted the ritual after observing its effect on students at WHEELS. But Sandy challenged the school’s first effort to hold the event. Channel View and its neighbors in the Beach Channel Campus are among the last schools to remain displaced by the storm; Friday’s parade took place on the football field of Franklin K. Lane Campus, Channel View’s temporary home.

And at a time when the students needed help writing essays, filling out online applications, obtaining transcripts and sending SAT scores, Walter, the school’s high school guidance counselor, was dealing with her own personal post-Sandy trauma. Walter usually helps her students work through these basic steps during school, then spends her nights at home writing dozens of recommendation letters for individual students.

“But I lost my computers, my printers, I didn’t have access to the internet for four and a half weeks,” said Walter, who lives on Broad Channel, the community located on a thin strip of land connecting the Rockaway peninsula to the rest of Queens. “It was very difficult for me and I lost a considerable amount of days not being there for them.”

On Friday, 46 days after the storm struck, Walter said the adversity was officially in the past. She marched with 65 Channel View seniors across the football field outside their temporary building and through a throng of screaming underclassmen who waved college pennants. Walter then peeled off as the seniors handed over stacks of college applications to a postal truck parked on the track.

“With every hurdle that there has been we’ve been able to climb up the hill together,” Walter said.

Seven weeks after the storm, it remains unclear when Channel View will return to its original building on the Rockaway Peninsula. A department spokeswoman said students are scheduled to return Jan. 3, but the school’s reopening has been delayed once already, and one teacher said on Friday that officials would meet next week to make a final decision about whether the school can be habitable by then.

In the relocated space, attendance has fallen to 85 percent, down from last year’s 91 percent. Principal Patricia Tubridy said many of  the missing students were still uprooted and living somewhere other than their homes. Others, she said, had enrolled in other schools and she hadn’t been notified yet.

Seniors said they were excited to participate in the collective college-application celebration because it showed their resilience.

“We’re marching today to prove that even though Sandy did push us back a llittle, we’re Rockaway-strong,” said senior Kristine Supple. “We’re going to keep fighting.”

A video from Channel View’s college-applications march is below, following by photographs from all of the marches that NYC Outward Bound schools held on Friday.

Students at NYC Outward Bound schools turned in their college applications on Friday. Clockwise from top left: Channel View School for Research; Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School, where Chancellor Dennis Walcott participated; James Baldwin Expeditionary Learning School; Kurt Hahn Expeditionary Learning School; Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies, which held a “cybermarch”; Leaders Expeditionary Learning School; Gaynor McCown Expeditionary Learning School; and Validus Prep. (All photos courtesy NYC Outward Bound)

 

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.