on the road again

Return of yellow school buses brings relief and new challenges

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Assistant teacher Miguelina Valeria takes attendance as students exit the bus at Manhattan’s P721 Wednesday.

Five weeks ago, what happened at P721 in Manhattan on Wednesday would not have seemed extraordinary: Yellow buses pulled up by the main entrance and assistant teacher Miguelina Valerio took attendance and greeted students as they headed into school.

But after a bus drivers’ strike that lasted over a month, the yellow buses marked the end of nightmarish commutes for many parents and, for many students with special needs, a long-awaited return to class.

P721 is a District 75 school that provides occupational training to high school students. During the strike, Valerio said, only 70 or 80 students came to school each day out of a student body of 200. “More than half the students were missing,” she said. “Little by little they’re coming back.”

Citywide, 88.5 percent of students made it to school on Wednesday, fewer than usual on a day that was supposed to be the middle of a vacation until Hurricane Sandy struck and required makeup days. But in District 75 schools, 82.6 percent of students attended school — almost the same number as who attended on a typical day before the strike.

Not all of the students who are entitled to ride yellow buses took them, though. Pointing to the roster where she marked how many students had gotten off the most recent bus, Valerio said only 12 of the 20 students on that bus had come to school. “Maybe they don’t know that the strike is over,” she said.

For those who did get the news, readjusting to routines that had been normal was a new challenge. After her husband heard on the news Saturday that the strike was over, Edith Rodriguez said she immediately started preparing her first-grader, Leilany, to start riding the school bus again.

For the first three weeks of the strike, Rodriguez kept Leilany home rather than spending six to eight hours a day hours shuttling her to and from school. Then, in response to pressure from advocates, the Department of Education agreed to pay cab fare for the four daily trips it took Rodriguez to accompany her daughter to and from school.

The end of the strike means another transition. “I was telling her starting Saturday, then again on Sunday,” Rodriguez said on Wednesday. “Last night I reminded her that the taxi wouldn’t come for us, that she had to go in the bus like always. It’s hard for her.”

Now Rodriguez, who works at a bakery, can return to her usual routine. Rather than rushing home to meet a cab at 2 p.m. and pick up her daughter, she has until Leilany’s bus arrives at 4:30 p.m. to finish work and run errands. “Today I am more calm and relaxed,” she said. “The strike days were very rushed.”

Parents across the city are finally able to return to their normal work schedules. “It was taking me five to six hours to go get my son, come back home, then go get him and bring him home,” said Shanna Yarbrough, whose second-grader attends a District 75 school in Sheepshead Bay. “Now I have all of those hours back.”

Still, the end of the strike brings a new set of challenges. Thousands of students, many with special needs, have been out of school for the duration of the strike. Now that the buses are running, those students are able to get to school, where they face transitions parents and special education advocates said many students are likely to find difficult.

“It’s like learning a new routine all over again … a month is a long time for a child. There will be a certain degree of starting over for some of the children,” said Maggie Moroff, special education policy coordinator at Advocates for Children.

Students who missed a month of classes and special services such as speech and occupational therapy will be “playing a serious game of catch-up,” Moroff said.

Kendra, a mother who is PTA president of a District 75 school and who did not want her last name published, managed to bring her son to school every day, where he received services for his special needs. But, she said that if other families’ experiences are anything like what she goes through during and after summer vacation, they are in for a rough adjustment.

When students with special needs are out of school for long periods, she said, “things start to fall apart for them. They start to become aggressive or agitated. They need their routine.”

There’s another way that the end of the bus strike is like starting the school year over, Yarbrough said. She said early in the year, students with special needs are often assigned bus routes that don’t meet their special needs or consistently drop them off at school late.

“This January and February is only a slightly larger version of the stress families go through every September,” Yarbrough said. “So we are not new to this kind of stress level from the Office of Pupil Transportation, and I will see it again in eight months.”

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.