rolling back

After backlash, city tweaks new special education funding rules

The Department of Education is rolling back some special education policies that drew sharp criticism last week from many principals.

The principals were alarmed by a deadline, originally set for today, to “clean up” data about students with disabilities. The deadline raised concerns that the department would take back funds from schools whose students fell into lower-than-anticipated funding tiers.

“The last-minute data capture has left us scrambling to account for potentially massive cuts to our budgets halfway through the school year,” 20 principals wrote Thursday in a letter to Chancellor Dennis Walcott.

In an email sent late Friday, the department’s chief financial officer, Michael Tragale, told principals that the department would push back the deadline and relax a particularly anxiety-inducing rule so schools could retain their special education funds.

“If your school operates on a seven period day (eight periods minus lunch), students that receive special education services in their four core classes (English, Math, Science and History) will be identified for funding purposes as students who receive full-time special education services,” he wrote, noting that the policy could change again next year.

Under the arrangement, students technically spend 57 percent of their time in special education classes, narrowly missing a 60 percent cutoff to draw extra funding. Some principals said they had so many students falling just below the threshold that they faced having to return more than $100,000 to the department.

Tragale also assured principals that reclassifying some students who receive special education services as “general education” in the department’s attendance and budgeting data system, as the department is asking them to do, would not lower the schools’ annual grades, which some principals had feared. The department will still count the students as having disabilities when awarding extra credit to schools whose highest-need students make academic progress.

And Tragale said all schools would have an extra week to check data about students with special needs. The extra time will increase the likelihood that schools’ data — and funding — are accurate. But it also means additional time away from students for special education teachers charged with resolving more than 50,000 discrepancies between two data systems.

A high school principal said he was relieved to learn that he would not lose funding because of the way his school schedules students with disabilities. But he said the department would be better off rolling new policies out slowly than scaling them back after drawing protest.

“I compare it to the academic policy changes that were done last year,” said the principal, referring to new policies announced in February 2012. “I don’t agree with all of those, but they certainly gave time and plenty of notice so that schools couldn’t say they’re changing the game on us in the middle. I don’t know why this isn’t the same way.”

Mark Anderson, a teacher who heads the special education department at Jonas Bronck Academy in the Bronx, said he thought that, even addressed, the situation reflected broader problems in the way the city is implementing special education policy changes.

“It just doesn’t seem like there’s someone in charge directing things, from central,” Anderson said. “Sometimes it seems like there’s as much confusion at the upper level as there is at the lower level. And that’s ultimately reflected on the ground level. Because there’s a lack of clarity on how things should be done.”

Tragale’s complete message to principals about the special education data concerns is below:

From: “Tragale Michael”
Date: January 11, 2013, 7:51:38 PM EST
To: “&All Principals”
Subject: Update on Midyear Adjustment Reconciliation

Dear Colleagues:

I understand that our shared effort to provide increased access to students with disabilities has raised a lot of questions regarding the mid-year budget adjustment process. I’m writing to provide additional guidance and clarification for your immediate use.

As you know, the Fair Student Funding formula for students with disabilities was adjusted this year as part of our work to educate students in their least restrictive environment and to provide funds needed for part-time (single and multiple) services. In response to principal concerns regarding the funding formula:

  • We will adjust the formula for schools with a seven period day (eight periods minus lunch), detailed in the Adjustment section below.
  • We will extend the deadline by which you must reconcile student data in ATS to January 23, detailed in the Next Steps section below.
  • We will honor appeals for data discrepancies, detailed in the Next Steps section below.

Please review the information below for immediate next steps and for a summary of these issues.

Sincerely,

Michael Tragale
Chief Financial Officer, New York City Department of Education

Adjustment to Fair Student Funding Formula

If your school operates on a seven period day (eight periods minus lunch), students that receive special education services in their four core classes (English, Math, Science and History) will be identified for funding purposes as students who receive full-time special education services. This adjustment is only applicable for these core classes and will be reviewed for FY 2014.

Clarification on School Scheduling and Student Services

Principals have reported confusion regarding how the total number of periods a week that a student is recommended to receive services and how the total number of periods in a school’s week are reflected. The DOE is using the following determinations to calculate the total number of periods in your school’s week:

  • Middle and high school period calculations will be determined from data in STARS.
  • Elementary school period calculations will be determined using the assumption of a 30 period week.
  • Instruction includes all periods (including electives and physical education) except for lunch, extended day, and discretionary before- and after-school programs.

The DOE is using SESIS data to capture the total periods per week that a student is receiving special education services.

Immediate Next Steps and Data Appeals

Your network will receive an updated report that details the discrepancies in your school between SESIS and ATS by student. This report replaces data that was previously based on minutes of service; it now reflects periods of service.

1. You should work with your network to review your school’s data for possible discrepancies and ensure that ATS reflects each student’s services appropriately by January 23. Possible discrepancies in the data include:

  • If the number of instructional periods indicated for your school is different than displayed on the discrepancy report, you should indicate the actual number. For example, the report notes you have seven daily periods but your school has eight. Periods should not include lunch, extended day, or before/after school programs.
  • SESIS indicates that a program recommendation of ICT to be provided in the subject area, where “Other” was selected for five periods. “Other” may have been intended to represent multiple subjects (such as English and Math). The correct number of periods should be indicated in the school’s data appeal.
  • When updating grade codes or the USPE screen, ensure that the effective date is retroactive to when the service began.

2. You should work with your network if you decide that you need to appeal data discrepancies that have been reported. Possible reasons for a data appeal include:

  • If we have captured an incorrect amount of total periods per week for your school.
  • If the total number of service periods for an individual student is incorrect.
  • If the start/end dates in SESIS were entered incorrectly and not reflected in the budget report.

3. You should work with your network to determine the impact any updates will have on your mid-year adjustment.

Examples of Correct ATS Coding for Students with Disabilities:

1. Student A has an IEP that calls for one period a day of SETSS for math. The school has a total of seven instructional periods a day, not including lunch, extended day, or before/after school programs. This student is receiving services for 1/7th of the school day, which is 14.3% of the day. This student should be entered into a general education grade code with the single-service flag selected on the USPE screen. This will drive funding in the <=20% FSF category to the school.

2. Student B has an IEP that states two periods a day of ICT for English and Math, and one period a day in a self-contained classroom for Science. The school has a total of seven instructional periods a day, not including lunch, extended day, or before/after school programs. This student is receiving services for 3/7th of the school day, which is 42.9% of the day. This student should be entered into a general education grade code with the multi-service flag selected on the USPE screen. This will drive funding in the 21%-59% FSF category to the school.

3. Student C has five periods a day in a self-contained classroom for the subjects of English, Math, Science, Social Studies, and Art. The school has a total of eight instructional periods a day, not including lunch, extended day, or before/after school programs. This student is receiving services for 5/8th of the school day, which is 62.5% of the day. This student should be entered into a self-contained grade code in ATS. This will drive funding in the >=60%, self-contained category to the school.

4. Student D has five periods a day in an ICT classroom for the subjects of English, Math, Science, Social Studies, and Art. The school has a total of eight instructional periods a day, not including lunch, extended day, or before/after school programs. This student is receiving services for 5/8th of the school day, which is 62.5% of the day. This student should be entered into an ICT grade code in ATS. This will drive funding in the >=60%, ICT category to the school.

Context on the Fair Student Funding Formula

The Fair Student Funding rate is based on the percent of instructional time (defined by number of periods a day) that a student requires special education services during the regular school day. More information about determining this percentage is available in this chart.

In September, schools began using the USPE screen in ATS to capture information about students who require part-time special education services. Students in either self-contained or integrated co-teaching classes for 60% or more of the week continue to be coded in a full-time special education grade code in ATS. Students receiving part-time services are now indicated in ATS using a general education grade code with a flag to identify if they receive either related services only (RO REL SERVICE ONLY), services for 20% or less of the week (SG SINGLE SERVICE), or services for 21%-59% of the week (ML MULTI-SERVICE). Please note that moving a student from a special education grade code (starting or ending with 9) into a general education grade code does not impact a school’s progress report, nor does it affect the IEP designation in a student’s official ATS profile.

Context on Data Issues Reported

A comparison of IEP data in SESIS and data entered by schools in ATS currently displays discrepancies between the services a student is mandated to receive in SESIS (as per their IEP) compared to the student’s programming in ATS (as per either the special education grade code or USPE data). These discrepancies highlight instances of students with disabilities with part-time program recommendations in SESIS, who are coded as receiving full-time services in ATS, and vice versa.

These discrepancies have serious implications for how students are receiving mandated services. As the DOE is committed to ensure students’ mandated services are being provided in the least restrictive setting appropriate, we need schools’ assistance in reconciling this information to ensure student programs match student IEPs.

Additionally, the information on the USPE screen will also replace the Special Education Integration Survey (SEIS). Using this screen was intended to be a faster and more convenient process for schools in comparison to the print-out process used previously for the SEIS schedule. It is therefore critical that services reflected be an accurate representation of services received.

New Partner

Boys & Girls Clubs coming to two Memphis schools after all

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Principal Tisha Durrah stands at the entrance of Craigmont High, a Memphis school that soon will host one of the city's first school-based, after-school clubs operated by the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis.

Principal Tisha Durrah says her faculty can keep students focused and safe during school hours at Craigmont High School. It’s the time after the final bell rings that she’s concerned about.

“They’re just walking the neighborhood basically,” Durrah says of daily after-school loitering around the Raleigh campus, prompting her to send three robocalls to parents last year. “It puts our students at risk when they don’t have something to do after school.”

Those options will expand this fall.

Craigmont is one of two Memphis schools that will welcome after-school programs run by the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis following this week’s change of heart by Shelby County’s Board of Commissioners.

Commissioners voted 9-4 to foot the bill for operational costs to open clubs at Craigmont and Dunbar Elementary. The decision was a reversal from last week when the board voted down Shelby County Schools’ request for an extra $1.6 million to open three school-based clubs, including one at Riverview School. Wednesday’s approval was for a one-time grant of $905,000.

Commissioners have agreed all along that putting after-school clubs in Memphis schools is a good idea — to provide more enriching activities for neighborhood children in need. But some argued last week that the district should tap existing money in its savings account instead of asking the county for extra funding. Later, the district’s lawyers said the school system can only use that money legally to pay for direct educational services, not to help fund a nonprofit’s operations.

Heidi Shafer is one of two commissioners to reverse their votes in favor of the investment. She said she wanted to move ahead with a final county budget, but remains concerned about the clubs’ sustainability and the precedent being set.

PHOTO: Boys & Girls Club
The Boys & Girls Club provides after-school programs for children and teens.

“If we give (money) to something that’s para-education, we have less to give to education,” she said. “There’s only a limited amount of dollars to go around.”

The funding will help bring to Memphis the first-ever school-based Boys & Girls clubs opened through Shelby County Schools, the largest district in Tennessee, said Keith Blanchard, the organization’s Memphis CEO.

While the nonprofit has had a local presence since 1962 and is up to seven sites in Memphis, it’s had no local government funding heretofore, which is unusual across its network. Nationally, about 1,600 of the organization’s 4,300 clubs are based in schools.

Blanchard plans to get Dunbar’s club up and running by the beginning of October in the city’s Orange Mound community. Craigmont’s should open by November.

“We hope to maybe do another school soon. … A lot will depend on how this school year goes,” he said. “I certainly hope the county sees the value in this and continues to fund in a significant way.”

At Craigmont, the club will mean after-school tutoring and job training in computer science and interviewing skills. Durrah says the activities will provide extra resources as the district seeks to better equip students for life after high school.

“It looks toward the long term,” Durrah said of the program. “This really fits in with the district’s college- and career-ready goals.”

diplomas for all

Education commissioner floats idea of allowing a work readiness credential to confer benefits of a diploma

Parent rally outside the state education building for more diploma options. (Courtesy Betty Pilnik)

A high school diploma opens doors to matriculating in college, qualifying for certain jobs and entering the military.

But many students struggle with New York state’s arduous requirements, which generally include passing at least four Regents exams. During a discussion Tuesday about creating more diploma options, New York state’s education commissioner floated a radical solution: Allow students to use a work-readiness credential to obtain a “local diploma” instead.

“I think what we need to look at is the opportunity of saying can the CDOS [Career Development and Occupational Studies credential] be, can the completion of the CDOS sequence, be an appropriate end to receiving a local diploma?” Elia said during a Board of Regents conversation about graduation requirements.

The CDOS credential was originally crafted in 2013 as an alternative to a diploma for students with disabilities. They can show they are ready for employment by completing hundreds of hours of vocational coursework and job-shadowing or by passing a work-readiness exam. The rules were changed last year to also allow general education students to obtain the credential, which can substitute for a fifth Regents exam for students who pass four.

Allowing the credential itself to confer the benefits of a diploma would mark a seismic shift in what it means to graduate in New York state. Students would potentially avoid having to pass a series of Regents exams — which would mark a huge victory for advocates who argue those exams unfairly hold students back.

But it would also raise questions about whether standards are being watered down. Chalkbeat has reported that the work-readiness exams used to obtain a CDOS credential often test fairly basic life skills, such as how to overcome obstacles when throwing a company party. The state itself is currently reviewing these exams to see if they have “sufficient rigor.”

The state cautioned that there is no formal proposal on the table. Also, the commissioner’s statement Tuesday morning was vague. If state officials decide to move forward with the proposal, for instance, they would need to decide if it is for all students or only students with disabilities. Officials would also need to clarify whether the work-readiness exam itself was sufficient for a diploma, or whether extra coursework would be tacked on.

“The Board of Regents and the State Education Department have made it a priority to allow students to demonstrate their proficiency to graduate in many ways. This is not about changing our graduation standards. It’s about providing different avenues – equally rigorous – for kids to demonstrate they are ready to graduate with a meaningful diploma,” said education department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis. “Today, the Board of Regents and the Department started a discussion to examine all of New York’s diploma options and graduation requirements. This discussion will continue over the coming months. It is premature to speculate on any changes that could be made as a result of this process.”

Regardless of any changes, all students would likely be required to complete the same number of high school courses, which includes 22 credits of required work, state officials said.

Still, just having the head of the state’s education department float this concept suggests a dramatic policy reversal. Starting in 2005, the Regents began a process to make it more difficult to earn a diploma in an attempt to prepare more students for college and career. Local diplomas exist today but are only offered in limited cases, for students with disabilities who complete a set of requirements, including the math and English Regents, and for general education students who just miss passing two of their Regents exams.

Recently, state education officials have been looking for ways to help students just shy of the passing mark. In 2014, they created a “4+1” option, which allows students to substitute a final Regents exam for a pathway in areas like the arts or Career and Technical Education, and then last year added CDOS as a potential pathway.

In 2016, another rule change allowed students to appeal Regents exam grades with scores below passing and let students with disabilities graduate after passing two Regents exams and getting a superintendent’s review. Last year, the number of New York City students successfully appealing Regents exam scores in order to graduate tripled, likely contributing to a boost in the city’s graduation rate.

By placing a discussion about diploma options on Tuesday’s agenda, state officials suggested the Regents want to do even more. Allowing students to earn a local diploma without passing any Regents exams would be the biggest change to date.

Stephen Sigmund, executive director of High Achievement New York, did not comment specifically on this provision and said he generally supports recent changes to graduation requirements. But he said looking forward, it will be important to maintain high standards.

“Ensuring that there’s rigor and that graduates are ready for what comes next is very important,” Sigmund said.

Many education advocates are likely to be supportive by the change. A group of activists rallied at the State Education Department on Monday, carrying signs that said “diplomas for all.”

These and other advocates argue that students across the state — particularly those with disabilities or those who struggle with tests — have had their life options severely limited by the exams.

State Senator Todd Kaminsky, who has been active in fighting for more diploma options, said for him, finding solutions for these students outweighs critics’ concerns about rigor.

“I think this is a major victory for parents who had seen their potential for their children stifled,” Kaminsky said. “I am firmly of the belief that we need to err on the side of giving children options to graduate.”