the tormented twentieth

At council budget hearing, talk turns to high school admissions

City Councilman Mark Weprin raised the issue of high school admissions during a City Council budget hearing today.

A middle school in eastern Queens has been hit particularly hard by the limits of the city’s high school admissions system, according to a local elected official who wants a new high school program opened to serve shut-out eighth-graders.

City Councilman Mark Weprin announced during a council hearing today that 67 students at M.S. 72 in Springfield Gardens wound up without a match last week when high school admissions decisions came out. The students made up 20 percent of the eighth grade, meaning that M.S. 72 students went unmatched at twice the citywide rate.

“There are 67 kids who think they did something wrong,” Weprin said. But their only offense, he said, is that students at M.S. 72 — which posts lower-than-average test scores but has a selective program — often don’t want to go to the high school most likely to accept them.

“The zoned high school is Martin Van Buren High School, and not a single parent put it as one of their choices,” Weprin said. Instead, he said, students aim for Francis Lewis High School or Bayside High School — two of the last high-performing comprehensive schools in the city. Both have many more students than their buildings are supposed to accommodate.

Education Committee chair Robert Jackson cautioned Weprin about sticking to the assigned topic, the Department of Education’s proposed capital budget for the fiscal year that starts in July. (The council is holding a hearing about the department’s operations budget on Thursday.) Weprin acknowledged that M.S. 72’s situation is “tangential to the capital budget” but that one solution would be to build more schools to accommodate the demand at schools that are overenrolled right now.

Another solution, Weprin told Department of Education Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm, who was testifying about the budget proposal “is to put a new program into Van Buren that would attract some of the M.S. 72 kids. It’s crazy that no one wants to apply there.”

The strategy is one that the Department of Education is trying this year at several other schools where demand for seats is low. For over a decade, the department has focused intently on closing low-performing schools and opening new ones in their place, but this year, most of the large schools that the city tried unsuccessfully to shutter last year stayed off the chopping block. Instead, they’re getting new selective programs designed to boost enrollment; reduce the density of high-need students, which the state is demanding; and add academic rigor to buildings where that has been lacking.

In 2011, Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch criticized the city for turning Automotive High School, one of the lowest-performing high schools in the city, into a “warehouse” for needy students. This year, Automotive is getting its first screened program, in mechanical engineering. John Dewey High School, which was almost closed last year, is getting a screened health professions program, and in Queens, John Adams High School is adding performance arts and engineering programs that will be open only to students with certain grades and scores.

The strategy might not work at Martin Van Buren, whose most famous dropout might be — somewhat ironically — the Nobel laureate who designed the city’s high school admissions system. After a dramatic enrollment decline in the last few years, the school is actually serving exactly as many students — about 2,200 — as it was designed to, according to Department of Education data about school capacity. And it already does have selective programs, in health professions and math and science. But those programs attracted few applicants last year, according to data published in the city’s high school directory.

The school might rebound without any enrollment intervention. After parents protested against longtime principal Marilyn Shevell last year, the Department of Education replaced her with Sam Sochet in July. Weprin praised Sochet but said, “It’s going to take people a long time to start believing in” Van Buren again.

The discussion of high school admissions was only a brief sideshow in a hearing that focused heavily on the city’s plans to remove light fixtures that can leak toxic PCBs from school buildings. The department plans to clear 97 buildings of PCBs this summer and another 73 in 2014 using its proposed budget, Grimm said. But Jackson called that timeline “totally unacceptable” and asked repeatedly whether more schools could be cleared if the department had more money for the project. (Comptroller John Liu, who is running for mayor, has championed using “Green Apple Bonds” to raise funds for PCB removal.)

More money could potentially speed PCB removal, Grimm replied, but having enough time to work on school buildings when students and teachers are not present also factors into the timeline.

About the pace of PCB removal, which is needed in nearly 800 buildings, Grimm said, “Can we see if that could be increased somewhat if there were more resources? Yes. Can we do everything in the summer of ’14? No.”

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.