school closing season

Closure plan debated at school where parents called for change

CAP (Photo: Luke Hammill)
Edna Wilson and her granddaughter Gianee, a P.S. 64 student, protested the school’s poor quality before its closure hearing. (Photo: Luke Hammill)

Reprising a march they held last fall, parents and community leaders stood outside P.S. 64 Pura Belpre with signs and mock sirens and declared a “state of emergency” in District 9 Thursday evening just before a public hearing about whether the South Bronx school should be phased out.

Local residents agreed on two things: P.S. 64 remains a failing school, and they are also frustrated with the Department of Education. But they had different views on what to do next.

Everybody, including department officials, recognizes that P.S. 64 is in need of a fresh start. At the hearing, parents complained that their children almost never come home with homework, that administrators are nearly impossible to reach on the phone, and that teachers are incompetent. But while some accept that the school is beyond salvation and want the department to provide a better setting for current students, others in the community think a total closure is a bad idea.

Marilyn Espada, a P.S. 64 parent on the district Community Education Council, echoed the cynicism shared by many when she spoke out against the phase-out. The DOE wants to put two smaller schools in P.S. 64’s place, but Espada said she did not think they would be any different.

“It basically goes back to square one – another failing school,” Espada said.

Edna Wilson, one of the women protesting before the meeting, stood next to her granddaughter, third grader Gianee, and said she didn’t think Gianee would be ready for her annual state tests. Wilson isn’t fighting the phase-out, but she said she is very concerned about what will be done immediately to help the students who will remain at P.S. 64 as it shrinks over time.

“If the school closes, I want to know what they’re going to do from now until June,” said Wilson, who plans to transfer Gianee to another school next year. “Because right now, they act like they don’t care.”

The department recently announced that it would give first crack at vacant seats in higher-performing schools to students in schools that are in the process of closing. When he briefed reporters about the new policy, Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg said part of the inspiration for the change was a conversation he had with parents at P.S. 64.

Only 18 percent of students at P.S. 64, which serves kindergarten through fifth grade, are at grade level in English. Twenty-seven percent are at grade-level in math. The New York State Education Department designated P.S. 64 a “Priority” school, meaning it is in the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide.

Instruction at P.S. 64 is in both English and Spanish. Almost half of the 884 students are English Language Learners. Over a dozen parents spoke, and about half of them spoke in Spanish. Many in the audience, composed of over 50 people, listened through headphones as a man in front translated the proceedings into Spanish for them. Some mothers cried as they pleaded with the department to put improve schools in District 9.

“I don’t think it’s fair for my son to go through this at this age,” said P.S. 64 parent Maria Hernandez, addressing Deputy Chancellor Corinne Rello-Anselmi, who sat at the front with Espada and other department officials.

Mother after mother told horror stories about P.S. 64 and the need for a significant change, and Rello-Anselmi tried at the end of the meeting to parlay those sentiments into support for a phase-out.

“We agree that a school is more than brick and mortar,” Rello-Anselmi said. “It’s what’s in it. It’s the community. … But we can no longer wait.”

State Assemblywoman Vanessa Gibson arrived halfway through the meeting. She said everybody, including the department and other policymakers, must take blame for P.S. 64’s failures and thanked the parents present for speaking out. She also said tat she agrees that P.S. 64 is in need of new leadership – she made a point to say Principal Tara O’Brien is “struggling” – but stopped short of supporting a full phase-out.

“School closures are not always the answer,” Gibson said after the hearing, echoing comments that local legislators have made increasingly often as the Bloomberg administration winds to a close. “And sometimes it feels like that’s all the department looks at.”

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.