young democrats

Students watch inauguration, put themselves in Obama's shoes

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Democracy Prep students and their families watch President Obama's inaugural address.

An inauguration event at the Harlem Armory on Monday drew students too young to remember any president but Barack Obama — and others who said his presidency changed the way they see their own futures.

While most schools across the city were closed for the Martin Luther King Day, the Democracy Prep charter network convened students, parents, teachers, staff, and community members to watch Obama’s inauguration on the big screen.

Leesandra Moore brought her four daughters to the inauguration event. Her oldest is in eighth grade at Democracy Prep, and her three younger daughters were born during Obama’s first term.

Referring to her three-year-old, Moore said, “I wanted her to experience it so she can say that she was there. She doesn’t understand race … but she will grow up in a world that does talk about race. Right now it just seems to her like, all these people are making a big fuss, what are they making a fuss over?”

Megan Kenslea, a second-grade teacher, said her students don’t remember not having a black president. But she said they might not recognize inequalities that still exist.

A five-year-old documents Obama’s swearing-in.

“Listening to [Obama] talk about how every child has the same opportunities — especially as a teacher, I see that not all kids have the same opportunities,” she said. “It depends on the education they receive.”

Surveying the talkative crowd, Democracy Prep Chief of Staff Katie Duffy said “We hope our kids see the community that supports them. We also wanted to celebrate that.”

The event wasn’t all about watching events taking place in Washington, D.C. Students were also called to take action at home. Democracy Prep encouraged students to send pre-printed postcards to policymakers with their recommendations for how to improve schools, then provided local volunteer opportunities during the afternoon.

Tiffany Frith, left, said Obama's presidency had caused her to reassess her own aspirations.

“One is to Ms. Obama, another to the president, and another to Governor Cuomo,” Democracy Prep middle schooler Dave Cassell said as he flipped through the postcards. “The point of these is to show what we think about the education values we have today. We write about how we feel about these issues.”

Postcard prompts included: “If I were president I would improve school safety by…” “If I were governor I would improve New York’s schools by…” “If I were First Lady I would help kids get healthy by…”

Dave Cassell and Emerald O’Brien discuss what policy recommendations to make on a postcard to the president.

Another postcard, addressed to City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and focused on charter schools, began, “We were disappointed to hear you say that you didn’t want to grow the number of public charter schools if you were elected mayor.” Quinn made the statement during first speech on education policy last week.

Tiffany Frith, a senior at Democracy Prep’s high school, said Obama’s election in 2008 prompted her to think more seriously about her role in public policy.

“Obama is a role model for me,” she said. “Past presidents weren’t African-American, and a lot of people thought there wouldn’t be one. Now there is, and that shows me that if I want to be president, I can be the first female president and an African-American president.”

Democracy Prep has pushed students to participate in politics since the network launched its first school in 2006. For Obama’s first inauguration in 2009, which fell on a school day, the network hosted an event attended by 34 other schools. More recently, in the lead-up to the 2012 election, the network dispatched students to encourage Harlem residents to vote.

Elvira Pocorni, who used to attend Democracy Prep, watched Obama’s speech with her brother Edward.

Elvira Pocorni got a call from Democracy Prep on Friday informing her of the event. Her grandmother, Minerva Dakriet, insisted that Elvira and her siblings attend, even though they no longer live in the city.

“I didn’t think we would see a black president in this lifetime, and we saw it twice,” Dakriet said. Turning to watch her grandchildren view Obama’s speech, Minerva noted how much work they have ahead of them.

“Obama’s paving the way for them, but they’ve got to study,” she said. “You can have a black president, but if you don’t do anything you will not make it.”

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.