life support

UFT Charter School to stay open with conditions and co-location

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Students read books at the UFT Charter School, which narrowly escaped closure today. The struggling school will be allowed to stay open for at least another two years.

The UFT Charter School received a two-year lifeline today, thanks in part to a city policy that the teachers union has opposed in the past.

The Department of Education’s proposal to move the school’s struggling middle grades under the same roof as the elementary school next year was an important reason that authorizers voted to renew the school’s charter for two more years, state officials said today. The school now faces an automatic “death penalty” in 2015 if academic performance doesn’t improve.

“I don’t want to have another round of this,” said Joseph Belluck, chairman of SUNY’s Charter Schools Committee. “Now is their time to show they can do this.”

The UFT Charter School was already open on a probationary basis, and years of low student performance, organizational dysfunction, and financial distress left its future in doubt. A report by SUNY CSI reviewers released last week detailed those struggles but — unusually — did not include a recommendation for whether committee members should vote to keep the school open or close it down.

Today, the three-person committee led by Belluck voted reluctantly to keep the school open. Committee members said the school’s middle grades did not deserve to stay open, but they said that closing the middle school would have left a “donut hole” between the higher-performing elementary school grades and the relatively new high school grades, where achievement is less clear.

Before their vote, they discussed some of the improvement plans that the school has going forward, including a move to consolidate the elementary and middle schools in the same public school building.

Currently, the schools are separated by about a mile, and school administrators have argued that being separated has held back the middle school’s ability to improve. Consolidating the locations would reduce high attrition between fifth and sixth grades and foster more collaboration between teachers at the two school levels, they said.

“The school indicates that … a K-8 program at that campus will address the problems that the middle school has had academically,” said Susan Miller Barker, who is not part of the committee but attended the meeting because she oversees school reviews for the SUNY Charter School Institute.

The argument puts the union in a potentially uncomfortable predicament. The union has been critical of many charter school co-locations, arguing that they unfairly take away space from district schools. In 2011, it unsuccessfully sued the city to reverse its charter school co-location plans for the upcoming school year. More recently, UFT President Michael Mulgrew has lobbied mayoral candidates to support a moratorium on co-locations, singling out charter schools in particular.

In a statement today, Mulgrew, who serves on the school’s board, said he was pleased with the renewal decision. “We are happy to see that the SUNY authorizers have recognized the many successes of our charter school, and have given the school the chance to build on those successes during the next two years,” he said.

A UFT spokesman said the union was not uniformly opposed to all charter school co-locations. “Our objections have been to co-locations where there isn’t enough room and/or community opposition,” Dick Riley said.

It’s unclear how J.H.S. 292, the district school that currently shares space with the UFT Charter Elementary School, feels about the city’s plans to move additional grades into the building. According the city plans, the building’s utilization rate would increase from 70 percent to more than 90 percent, meaning that access to classrooms and shared space such as the gymnasium, auditorium, and cafeteria would be less flexible.

When reached on the phone this afternoon, Principal Gloria Williams Nandan declined to comment. But she said she would be speaking about the co-location plan at a public hearing on Wednesday. The Panel for Educational Policy is set to vote on the proposal March 11.

The renewal decision was criticized by StudentsFirstNY, which is aligned to Mayor Bloomberg on education issues and is a frequent critic of the union’s role in education.

“The decision to allow the UFT Charter School to remain open for another two years is yet another example of politics coming before the interests of our kids,” said StudentsFirstNY spokeswoman Chandra Hayslett.

The renewal also drew criticism from charter school advocates, who have characterized repeated short-term renewals as anathema to the charter movement’s philosophy of flexibility in exchange for tough accountability.

Greg Richmond, CEO of the National Alliance of Charter School Authorizers, which has called on states to crack down on low-performing charter schools, said that short-term renewals were often a way for authorizers to protect themselves politically. It can appease parents and the school community that doesn’t want to see the school closed, while simultaneously keeping up a false perception of heightened accountability.

“I think a lot of times these short-term renewals are something that makes the the [authorizer] comfortable,” Richmond said. “They can have their cake and eat it too.”

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.