broken promise?

City moves to close Cypress Hills school at heart of federal grant

Students who participate in the Beacon after-school program at J.H.S. 302 in Brooklyn served healthy food after learning about nutrition. The nonprofit that runs the program wants to help the school improve, but the city wants to close it down. (Photo: Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation)

As the new year began, J.H.S. 302 in Brooklyn thought it was on the right track.

Principal Lisa Linder had worked with a local nonprofit to apply for a federal grant to flood the low-performing school and the surrounding neighborhood with extra help for students and their families. In late December, the nonprofit, Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation, found out it would get $371,000 from the U.S. Department of Education to move forward with the project.

Then the other shoe dropped: The city Department of Education announced on Jan. 7 that it planned to close J.H.S. 302.

The news has thrown the nonprofit partnership into question — and it has also put J.H.S. 302 at the center of a tug-of-war between two competing visions about how to improve struggling schools.

The Bloomberg administration has taken many approaches to helping the city’s lowest-performing schools over the last decade. But the strategy it has returned to most often is to close weak schools and open new options in their place.

That strategy has drawn more and more criticism as evidence increasingly shows that new schools do not always perform better and that, especially for high schools, closures can contribute to other schools’ decline. Now, as the Bloomberg administration enters its final years, elected officials in the city are pointing to a different approach: “community schools” that offer medical, mental health, and social services alongside classroom instruction.

Inspired by a union-organized trip to see Cincinnati’s community schools, most of the Democratic candidates for mayor have committed to promoting the model, arguing that children cannot succeed academically unless they are physically and emotionally supported first.

This philosophy underpins the Promise Neighborhood grant program the U.S. Department of Education launched in 2010. Modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone, the program funds local efforts to provide educational, social, and health services to all children in a single neighborhood, from their birth to their first days of college.

Each year, the department awards two kinds of grants: planning grants to figure out how to help local communities, and implementation grants to put those plans into action. In December, the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation was one of 10 community groups nationwide awarded the latest planning grants.

Rob Abbot, the nonprofit’s director of youth and family services, said one of the grant’s priorities is to improve middle school education in the neighborhood, with a particular eye towards boosting students’ math and reading test scores. But what exactly the organization proposes to do for J.H.S. 302 and in the neighborhood as a whole, Abbot said, depends on the needs identified in an initial assessment and the possible solutions that emerge through collaboration with other schools.

Linder said she hoped the planning process would focus in part on finding ways to better serve the J.H.S. 302’s large bilingual population and introducing more technology to the school, which already belongs to the city Department of Education’s Innovation Zone.

Emily Blank, Cypress Hills’ development director, said she chose to partner with J.H.S. 302 because of a “longstanding relationship” with the school and with Linder, and because the corporation already runs the Beacon school-based community center there.

“This [grant] really gives us the opportunity to pull resources together, and hopefully leverage that to get more resources that will really make the difference,” she said.

Though J.H.S. 302 is the main partner school, the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation also plans to collaborate with five other schools in the neighborhood, including P.S. 89, a K-8 school the nonprofit helped found that has been more succcessful than J.H.S. 302. “We’ll be looking at practices [at P.S. 89] that are having good results and are preparing middle school students for successful transition to high school,” Abbot said.

Blank called the new funds “game-changing” and said the group plans to apply for a federal Promise implementation grant once the planning process is complete.

But J.H.S. 302 might not be around by then. If the school’s closure is approved — and it is likely to be, given the city school board’s 100 percent track record in supporting city proposals — it won’t have a sixth grade this fall. Next year, it would have only an eighth grade, and it would close its doors for the last time when those students graduate in 2015. That means the partnership could not fulfill the terms of its grant application, which, Linder noted, “was written with the framework of 302 having grades six to eight.”

Blank said officials from the U.S. Department of Education advised her last week that Cypress Hills’s Promise Neighborhood project would not be called off just because J.H.S. 302 might close. She said she plans to proceed with J.H.S. 302 as the partner school and then, “if 302 were closed, we would move along with whatever school is the replacement.”

That means the project of revamping the school will follow an uncertain course for some time. While the school closures will not be finalized until March and new schools will not get up and running until this summer, Promise Neighborhood grantees are expected to begin the planning process this month.

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.