What's in a name?

Bronx school's bid to rebrand itself meets local resistance

A hard-charging principal’s efforts to rename a long-struggling school in the Bronx is meeting stiff resistance from a local community group.

District 9 Community Education Council last night voted against a proposal by M.S. 22 Jordan Mott to change its name to College Avenue Academy at Jordan Mott. The rejection comes after the council for two months delayed voting on the proposal, typically among a CEC’s least controversial duties.

When city officials told M.S. 22 last year that it would be among dozens of schools to undergo a federal school improvement strategy called “turnaround,” they promised that the school would get a pot of extra funds, many new teachers, and a new name.

A judge shut down the city’s plans over the summer. But high staff turnover at M.S. 22 meant the school could get new teachers and federal dollars anyway.

Now, the school is out to complete the trifecta. Principal Linda Rosenbury wants to change the school’s name to College Avenue Academy at Jordan Mott, a similar version of the name the city planned to use this year had the overhaul plan gone through. The school sits on College Avenue, where there is no college, although its official address is on 167th Street.

Rosenbury said that she sought the new name because it was a new direction create a new association for the school and accurately reflect the school’s new focus on academics.

“The school community believes that the college theme will give the school a fresh start and help create an academic tone by helping students identify as college-bound scholars planning for their future,” Rosenbury wrote in an email.

Mary Conway-Spiegel, an organizer who works in struggling schools, said that 106 of 134 of parents at the 650-student school favored the proposal in a vote taken by the school. Several parents have testified at the meetings to support of the proposal, Conway-Spiegel said.

Despite the support, four of the council’s six members in attendance voted against the proposal. One abstained and one voted in support.

“We keep presenting facts. We keep showing up with parents. The kids themselves chose the name,” said Conway-Spiegel.

Voting against name changes despite a showing of community support is unusual, according to members of parent councils in other districts.

“We generally want to do whatever the local school wants to do,” said District 15 CEC President Jim Devor. “It’s not for us to impede that.”

Members of the District 9 CEC did not respond to requests for comment. Conway-Spiegel reported that one member said he was concerned that changing the name would be disrespectful to Jordan Mott, a 19th century New York City industrialist, while another member worried that College Avenue’s history of crime would not be a positive association for the school.

But in a letter Conway-Spiegel prepared for supporters of the name change to send to the CEC, Conway-Spiegel suggested that the parent council might have an “alternative motive.”

One possibility is that Rosenbury’s vociferous support for the turnaround plans, which were controversial in large part because they required all teachers to reapply for their jobs, had made her enemies on the council. Some principals opposed turnaround, including many who would have to be removed as part of the process, and others supported some elements but not the required name changes. But Rosenbury publicly defended the plans from start to finish, and after an arbitrator halted the city’s turnaround planning, she spoke out against the UFT for stepping in, too.

Appearing on NY1 after the arbitrator’s decision, Rosenbury said, “As a principal, I think it’s the least effective teachers who are being protected that are giving the public that impression. And I actually think that the way that the UFT is defending all teachers regardless of their performance is hurting teachers.”

CEC feedback about name changes is required, but not binding. Department of Education regulations say that Chancellor Dennis Walcott gets the final say and Rosenbury said she is undecided about whether she plans to take it up with him next.

If there is ultimately a name change, it wouldn’t be in time to influence this year’s crop of fifth graders. All middle school applications are due on Friday.

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.