day fifteen

Policies to help parents cope with strike fall short, advocates say

Leilany Andrade left P.S. 224 on Tuesday, after her first day back since the school bus strike began.

Edith Rodriguez’s daughter Leilany Andrade went back to school on Tuesday for the first time since the bus strike began three weeks ago.

Andrade, a first grader, has special needs and requires a classroom environment not available in her neighborhood. So she attends P224, a District 75 school in northern Queens not served by the subway.

Rodriguez and her husband would have to spend six to eight hours a day in transit — with their three-year-old son in tow — if they wanted to take Leilany to school and pick her up. And they couldn’t afford to front the money for cab fare or miss their shifts at the bakery where she works mornings and the restaurant where he works afternoons. So they kept Leilany home.

“All the last two weeks, she was asking me, ‘Why aren’t I going to school, when can I go back?'” Rodriguez said. “I tried to explain to her a little that there were no buses.”

Leilany’s story is one of many advocates say show that the Department of Education’s efforts to support families during the bus strike have fallen short.

A city policy rolled out Jan. 22 to let parents bill cab fares directly to the Department of Education, and the department has so approved more than 1,100 students to bill the city for their transportation costs, according to a spokeswoman. But the policy covered only the legs of each trip where parents were present. Under that policy, Rodriguez or her husband would still have had to take public transportation from P224 to work and back to pick Leilany up — spending four hours between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. on the bus or train each day.

After negotiating with the Department of Education for over a week, lawyers at Advocates for Children persuaded the department on Friday to authorize Rodriguez for all four taxi rides it takes to accompany her daughter to and from school each day.

“This is an evolving policy of the Department of Education,” said Maggie Moroff, the special education policy coordinator at Advocates for Children. “Initially it was reimbursement only. Then it was pre-imbursement, but pre-imbursement for only the two trips where the child was actually in the car. Now under certain circumstances it covers all four, but that’s on a case-by-case basis. The policy is so evolving that this is the first week we’re actually seeing parents getting all four rides covered.”

Daily attendance in District 75 schools, which serve severely disabled students, remains more than 10 percentage points below average, meaning that more than 2,500 students are missing school each day who likely would not if buses were running normally.

Transportation is not the only issue families are facing. While Leilany was stuck at home, Rodriguez was determined to help her complete several packets of class work provided by the school. Rodriguez doesn’t speak English, so she entered all of the text into Google Translate.

At a press conference Tuesday called by Public Advocate Bill de Blasio to push for a resolution to the strike, special education parent and advocate Lori Podvesker said the materials posted online by the Department of Education aren’t particularly useful even to English-speaking parents of students with special needs. The materials are organized by grade level, but, she said, “our kids are not on grade level. Their educational plans are very tailored to their needs and where they are developmentally.”

De Blasio called on the mayor to negotiate with the union and end the strike. “Obviously parents did not expect to have to use the do-it-yourself approach to education,” he said. “This can’t go on like this. It just can’t continue, because parents can’t just figure out how to address the needs of their children educationally if they can’t get them to school. You can’t do it yourself at home.”

Parents who are overcoming steep obstacles to get their children to school face other challenges.

Lucia Emile still hasn’t gotten reimbursed for more than two weeks worth of cab fares she paid out of pocket to bring her son from their home in Brooklyn to the Center for Autism Charter School on the Upper East Side. She filed for reimbursement but hasn’t heard anything from the Department of Education.

So far, the department has received 3,556 reimbursement requests, but does not have information about how many reimbursements have actually been issued, according to a spokeswoman.

“We paid all three weeks of fares and they haven’t given us any reply or told us what is going on,” Emile said. “They made it seem like, we’re really going to take care of you. Just go online, get the form, mail it in, and we’ll reimburse you. We thought by now we would get the payment from the first week.” She said she does not know anyone who has been reimbursed.

The strike comes at a time when the city is working to overhaul how students with disabilities are assigned to schools. For the first time this year, schools were told that they had to accept all students in their zone who applied, regardless of the students’ disabilities.

Concern that some students might be placed in inappropriate settings to satisfy the city’s mandates has some critics wary of the reforms. But the transportation nightmares created by the bus strike point to one benefit of educating students closer to home.

“It’s not like busing is a great perk special ed students get,” said Shanna Yarbrough, the parent of a second-grader who has autism. “The schools that are closest to us don’t have classes for our children. We’re not welcome there. We have to go elsewhere.”

Many of the students affected by the strike already have trouble with transitions. “He’s off his game,” Yarbrough said of her son, who has had to adjust to taking the bus and train from Park Slope to his school in Sheepshead Bay.

“This change has a domino effect into a lot of aspects of his daily routine. It’s very detrimental,” she said.

Yarbrough said one of the most frustrating aspects of the strike is not being able to get answers to her questions. She said that when she called the Office of Pupil Transportation, she was told, “I don’t know anything, check the news,” and instructed to call 311, the city’s customer service hotline.

Yarbrough said she called 311 and was transferred to parent services, then told that any questions about the strike not related to reimbursement should be directed to Chancellor Dennis Walcott via mail.

“That was the extent of the help I could receive exhausting every resource I could find online and calling 311,” Yarbrough said. “That was the best information I got. Here’s a mailing address, you can write a letter.”

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.