tough spot

In a twist, UFT gets attacked over its charter school co-location

J.H.S. 272 social studies teacher Michael Maiglow testifies at a co-location hearing for the UFT Charter School.
J.H.S. 272 social studies teacher Michael Maiglow testifies at a co-location hearing for the UFT Charter School on Wednesday evening.

The strength of the United Federation of Teachers’ opposition to contested co-locations is being tested.

The union has been so hostile to the city’s controversial space-sharing arrangements within school buildings — particularly those involving charter schools — that it sued the Department of Education to put a stop to them. And union organizers have regularly rallied around unpopular co-locations as a potent weapon to discredit Mayor Bloomberg’s education policies.

But in a twist of fate, the union’s own embattled UFT Charter middle school is now set to move into public space where it’s not welcome. Students, teachers and the administration at J.H.S. 292, a 750-student district middle school with a gifted and talented program and robust performing arts offerings, are vehemently against the plan and organizing to reverse it.

According to the city’s planning documents, J.H.S. 292 is using twice as much space as it needs and would give up 21 of its 50 full-size classrooms to the incoming charter school. The UFT Charter School’s elementary grades already operate in the building.

All together, the UFT Charter School would have 40 classrooms next year, 11 more than J.H.S. 292, even though the two schools would have around the same number of students, according to Gloria Williams Nandan, J.H.S. 292’s principal.

At a public hearing about the space-sharing plan Wednesday evening, Williams Nandan said the disparity struck her as not just unfair, but a little ironic as well.

“Come September, our teachers will lose their classrooms and there begins their dilemma, for when our teachers are kicked out of their classrooms, to whom will they turn?” she testified. “Their union? Oops, sorry, it’s their school that would have taken over their classrooms.”

Supporters for J.H.S. 292 packed the school’s auditorium for the hearing. Eighty people, most of whom opposed to the plan, signed up to speak. In between, there were performances from a marching band, African drummers, karate students, and pairs of dancers doing the waltz.

Students have even written business letters to Chancellor Dennis Walcott aligned to Common Core literacy standards.

“The assignment was to express our opinions about the recent proposal,” said Isabel Lewis, an eighth-grader, explaining her work. She wrote that she opposed the plan because she was concerned about overcrowding and student safety. “Due to the fact that we had already learned persuasive writing recently, they wanted us to use the techniques they taught us.”

Allowing charter schools to share space with district schools at no cost has been a signature education policy of the Bloomberg administration. The policy has allowed the city’s charter sector to expand quickly in a city with a tight — and pricey — real estate market. It also let the Department of Education fill space vacated as the Bloomberg administration phased out more than 150 low-performing schools, in a school closure push that the UFT has resolutely opposed.

Usually, the union would get behind a school with so much community support in pushing back against a co-location plan.

“Our objections have been to co-locations where there isn’t enough room and/or community opposition,” UFT spokesman Dick Riley emailed GothamSchools in response to a question about UFT Charter School’s proposed co-location plans.

But in this case, it was the UFT that asked for the city make the move. As part of a plan to improve the academic performance of its middle grades, the union sought to move the school under the same roof as its elementary school, which has been coexisted peacefully with J.H.S. 292 since 2005. In fact, the move was an important condition on which state education officials renewed the struggling charter school’s right to operate this week.

“It’s like you have this house where you use up every square inch of space and then you have to give up half that space to a school that really doesn’t deserve it,” said Jennifer Barrett, who coordinates J.H.S. 292’s performing arts programs, which she believes could be most affected.

Barrett was among several people at the hearing who questioned whether the UFT Charter middle school should even be allowed to stay open because its students have struggled academically for years.

Supporters of the co-location plan said that since city had already pegged J.H.S. 292’s building as underused, it would just fill the space with students from another school if the UFT Charter’s middle grades did not move in. It would be better, they said, to build on an existing relationship.

“All of the same things they’re concerned about, we’re concerned about,” said Craig Taylor, a music teacher in the UFT’s charter elementary school. “We just hope that we can make this work.”

Above, watch a video of Michael Maiglow’s testimony at Wednesday’s public hearing. Maiglow, a social studies teacher at J.H.S. 292, was among 80 speakers who signed up to testify at the heated hearing about the city’s plans to place a union-run charter school in a district school building.

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.