school closing season

At three tiny schools, brief closure hearings air common themes

Parents and teachers attend a public hearing in P.S. 73's auditorium to determine whether that school will be closed by the city. (Photo: Nell Gluckman)
A smattering of parents and teachers attended a public hearing Monday night about the city’s plan to phase out and replace Brooklyn’s P.S. 73. (Photo: Nell Gluckman)

School closure hearings tend to be fairly raucous and protracted events, but three that the Department of Education held on Monday night for small schools were quick and relatively quiet.

Some of the strongest support for Freedom Academy High School, which would close outright at the end of the year, came not from students or teachers but from nonprofit partners who have tried to help the school’s low-performing students. The principal of Manhattan’s J.H.S. 13 was its most vocal supporter. And at P.S. 73 in Brooklyn, only a handful of people spoke out to defend the school — though parents left with questions unanswered.

The hearings are a required part of the city’s process to close or open schools, which culminates with a vote by the Panel for Educational Policy. The panel, which has never rejected a city proposal, is set to vote on the plans March 11.

P.S. 73

The basement auditorium of P.S. 73 was nearly empty on Tuesday evening when Department of Education Deputy Chancellor Dorita Gibson explained the rationale behind the city’s plan to phase out the Brownsville school.

P.S. 73 “lacks capacity to improve quickly,” Gibson said, explaining that the department thinks students in the area will be served better by two new elementary schools that would open in the building.

The explanation met little official resistance. Just three parents and one teacher spoke at the hearing, and parents who had been told that the meeting could go on for hours were surprised when it was adjourned after only 40 minutes. Principal Kenya Stowe sat on the panel but did not speak on the school’s behalf.

Joseph Mahler, a physical education teacher, was the sole teacher to speak up for the school. “We just want to be given the ample time to prove ourselves,” he said.

P.S. 73 has been designated a failing school by the Department of Education and is now among the bottom 3 percent of New York City schools that serve kindergarten through eighth grade. Its 415 students in kindergarten through eighth grade post state test scores far lower than the city’s average and, in middle school, pass relatively few core courses, making them ill-prepared for high school.

The hearing did not assuage parents’ concerns about what would become of their children’s education. “What is it that the new schools are going to have that 73 doesn’t have or that you can’t give to them?” asked Ualin Smith, a Brooklyn official of the United Federation of Teachers, the city’s teachers union. Her testimont elicited mutterings of agreement and hearty applause.

After the meeting, a cluster of parents, talking among themselves, echoed Smith’s sentiment and also expressed disappointment at the lack of response from the panel. “I heard no answers,” said Daniel Saunders, president of the parent teacher association.

“I want to know from the DOE why can’t they implement what’s working in the charter schools in the DOE schools?” said Keisha Gillis, who has two children at P.S. 73 and two at KIPP AMP Academy, a charter school in Crown Heights.

Nikiya Wilson, vice president of the parent teacher association, said she thinks the school could have improved if it had more support. The neighborhood P.S. 73 serves one of the poorest in the city, with an unemployment rate of 14.7 percent and a median household income of $27,000, compared to the city’s $50,000 median, according to the Department of City Planning.

Wilson said she wished the Department of Education had helped her share materials with parents on how to support the work their children are doing in school, especially now tat the state has adopted a new set of standards called the Common Core.

“Everything I give to my parents I have to go on the Internet and download it,” she said.

Parents and students also complained about the school’s climate. On surveys administered by the Department of Education, P.S. 73 students, parents, and teachers gave the school low marks and indicated that teachers were not treated with respect and fighting was common.

“This school is far beyond out of control,” said Helena Deramus, the mother of four P.S. 73 students, said after the closure hearing.

“A lot of kids in the school is really, really bad,” said a fifth grader, referring to students’ behavior.

The city’s plan has P.S. 73 losing several grades a year to a new elementary school and a new middle school that would start taking on grades in the fall of 2013. The two new schools would operate independently from one another and by 2016, they would take over the old brick building.

Not all parents were against the plan. “I think it’s good,” said Wanda Daniels, a parent of two students. “Maybe change can help some of these kids.”

–Nell Gluckman

J.H.S. 13 Jackie Robinson

The most strenuous defense of J.H.S. 13 at the school’s closure hearing Monday night came from Principal Jacob Michelman.

Like most people who spoke out in the school’s defense, Michelman said J.H.S. 13 was on the road to improvement.  For example, he said, last year the school was cited for 230 suspensions — an exceptionally large number — placing it on the persistently dangerous school list. This year, after targeted efforts to monitor students, suspensions decreased by 70 percent.

He also said the school’s poor statistics, which the city is citing as justifications for closure, are skewed. Two years ago, when only 30 percent of the staff reported feeling safe in the school, only four staff members took the city’s survey, Michelman said.

“It’s not dangerous in here,” said Servia Silva of the United Federation of Teachers. “This is a safe school.”

And in a letter Michelman delivered to the school’s community and read aloud at the hearing, he said sixth-graders’ low test scores were representative of the district, and not unique to Jackie Robinson.

“Should we be phased out? The more I think about it the more I am confident we should be given the opportunity to continue to improve,” Michelman said.  “We are confident we will be successful.”

Department of Education officials are less sure. Citing “poor performance and inability to improve quickly to better support student needs,” they have proposed replacing the 199-student middle school with a charter school, East Harlem Scholars Academy II. One major topic of debate of the night was how the department devised those plans without consulting the other schools in the building or finalizing plans for Jackie Robinson.

A separate hearing on Wednesday will deal with the proposal for the new charter school. That hearing is expected to be far more contentious, because two elementary schools in the area, Central Park East and Central Park East II, had requested to open a middle school but were told that there was no space available in the area, according to a recent DNAInfo report. Central Park East I is housed in the same building as J.H.S. 13, which was at one time known as Central Park East Middle School.

Now, supporters of the Central Park East schools are planning to turn out in droves at the Wednesday hearing, which will also take place at J.H.S. 13. “Wear your school shirts! Make and bring signs showing your support!” reads a flyer that the elementary schools have distributed to parents.

The tone at Monday’s hearing was more subdued, although some parents did speak out against the charter school co-location plan. Students from Mount Sinai Medical School who operate a program dedicated to educating middle-schoolers in East Harlem about science and medicine came to support J.H.S. 13, and an eighth-grader wearing a grey hooded sweatshirt and a plastic wristband displaying the word “Courage” took the microphone to speak for his peers.

“Closing schools is not the answer,” Silva told the department officials present, who included Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg. “It is never the answer to turn your back away on children.”

–Rula Al-Nasrawi

Freedom Academy High School

Parents, teachers, and other supporters of Freedom Academy High School passionately defended the school at its closure hearing on Monday night, citing strong six-year graduation rates despite what they described as a lack of support from the city.

Unlike most schools it has proposed for closure, the Department of Education has no plans to replace Freedom Academy High School. The city’s lease on Freedom Academy’s Downtown Brooklyn building expires at the end of the school year, and under the city’s plan, students who do not graduate from the 171-student school in June would be offered a seat in another high school.

Freedom Academy, whose entering students typically have very low skill levels, has received “F” grades on its last two city progress reports. The Department of Education also cites the school’s four-year graduation rate of 50 percent as a reason for its closing.

But supporters pointed to an 85 percent six-year graduation rate as proof of the school’s success and said the Department of Education fails to understand Freedom Academy’s unique student body.

“We have 16-year-olds coming into the school in ninth grade,” said Maxine Norton, the school’s parent coordinator for eight years. “How are we going to graduate those kids on time?”

Though the hearing lasted less than an hour, those who spoke in support of Freedom Academy were adamant, often raising their voices to tell Department of Education representatives that closing the school would not solve its problems.

“We educate children,” said Susanne Veder Berger, who runs a newspaper internship within the school. “We do not close schools. … We do not throw children into 60 different schools. It does not work.”

Jeremy Del Rio, executive director of 20/20 Vision for Schools, a group that has been helping to provide extracurricular activities at Freedom Academy since it received its first “F,” said the Department of Education’s presence in the school last year was counterproductive. He said news of the potential closing demoralized students when they received it in January, two weeks before Regents exams.

“Basically what they’re telling the school community is, ‘You’re a bunch of failures,’” Del Rio said about the department.

Despite the perceived lack of support, teachers and staff said the school is improving. They also said they believed that the students at Freedom Academy — some of whom are homeless and come from troubled backgrounds — need the school and the support it provides.

“Progress has been made and support has not been given,” said Jonathan Schulman, a law teacher. “If [the students] didn’t have us, where would they get other people to do what we do everyday? Where would they be?”

No students spoke at the hearing, but Stephanie Lopez, a 10th-grader who attended, said the idea of closing Freedom Academy hurt her. “I’ve made a community here,” she said.

Since transferring to the school last fall, Lopez’s grades have improved and she’s developed an interest in poetry. After the hearing, she sat with Pat Sutherland-Cohen, a Freedom Academy mentor and teaching coach, discussing a book of poetry.

“That’s the type of student you get at Freedom,” Sutherland-Cohen said.

 –Amanda Cedrone

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.