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Success Academy charter network sets sights on high school

Families lined up outside Brooklyn Technical High School in October to enter the city's annual high school fair. Concerned that there are not enough high-quality choices, many charter school networks are opening high schools of their own.

If all goes according to Success Academy Charter Schools’ plan, this year’s seventh-graders at the network’s first school won’t have to hunt for a high school.

The network is asking the state for permission to expand the school to ninth grade in 2014, the year that its first cohort will hit high school. SUNY’s Charter Schools Institute, which authorizes the school, is holding a hearing about the proposal on Tuesday and will decide whether to approve it as early as January.

The proposal does not represent a commitment to add high school grades to all of the network’s schools, according to a spokeswoman. But it does reflect the charter sector’s growing realization that ending after eighth grade would mean sending thousands of students a year into a high school admissions process that can be difficult to navigate and can result in assignment to a low-performing school.

In the past, many high-performing charter schools have sought to place their graduates in selective high schools or get them scholarships to private schools in the city and beyond. But with more students graduating from charter middle schools each year, there are not enough seats to go around, and the schools are creating their own.

The KIPP network added an elementary school in 2009 and a high school in 2010, while Democracy Prep has run a high school since its first students graduated from eighth grade and added an elementary school last year when it took over a struggling elementary school, Harlem Day Charter School. Since 2009, eighth-graders graduating from Uncommon Schools or Achievement First schools have been able to continue on in consolidated high schools operated by the networks.

If approved, Success would be the largest of the city’s charter school networks to craft an uninterrupted kindergarten-to-graduation pathway for their students. When the 14 schools currently in operation in the Success Network have fully scaled up, they could have more than 2,000 eighth-graders each year — and the network is still expanding, with six schools proposed to open in 2013.

About 80,000 students apply to city high schools each year, with about 10 percent getting shut out of all of the schools to which they apply.

“While we might be able to place our first two [smaller] classes in other high schools, our classes quickly become too big to ensure we can place every child in a high quality program,” said Kerri Lyon, a Success spokeswoman. “Our goal has always been college graduation and we think this will put our students on the right track towards fulfilling that mission.”

Some charter school networks are sticking to a smaller niche, despite having some of the same concerns. At a panel discussion last week about diverse schools, the CEO of the Explore Schools network, Morty Ballen, said he was committed to focusing on elementary and middle school grades. But he said a downside is that his students might have to leave their neighborhoods and their communities if they want to attend a high-quality high school.

“Our approach is K to 8 and we’re not going to tell kids, ‘Don’t go to Trinity [an elite private school], stay here and go to the high school around the corner,'” Ballen said. “Not when the high school is crappy — and there are a lot of crappy high schools.”

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.