parent power

Parents with Families for Excellent Schools start to get political

Parents talk about the answer to a question posed by the group facilitator: "What are the characteristics of a quality education?"
Parents involved with Families for Excellent Schools sit in a small group discussion to talk about the answer to a question posed by the group facilitator: “What are the characteristics of a quality education?”

Regina Dowdell stepped up to the microphone and made an honest admission to the room full of fellow parents.

“I personally didn’t know exactly what the mayor did,” said Dowdell, whose daughter attends Girls Preparatory Bronx Charter School. “I think that’s an important focus today.”

Then a PowerPoint slide with the words “Why the mayor matters” flashed onto the screen, followed by slides explaining that the mayor chooses the chancellor and the majority of members on the Panel for Educational Policy, the city’s school board.

The education policy tutorial was part of Families for Excellent Schools‘ first town hall meeting, aimed at turning parents affiliated with the 18-month-old group into a political force in this year’s mayoral election. The nonprofit organization, which focuses on parent-to-parent training and has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants from local and national foundations, is one of several trying to mobilize parents as a voting bloc this year.

The group’s top priorities are school choice, teacher evaluations, and ensuring that charter schools have access to public space. But rather than to tell the parents what to think, said Executive Director Jeremiah Kittredge, the purpose of Saturday’s event was to start a conversation for the 200 parents in attendance to begin understanding the policies they can push for.

“This is about developing a statement of principles that these families can use, on which they would hold a mayor who’s here for 10 or 12 years accountable,” Kittredge said. “It’s my hope, if we’re doing our job right, that folks here feel like they’re helping to found and grow an organization that’s not going away.”

More than 5,000 parents from more than 50 schools — almost all charter schools — have attended at least one event or training session during the school year, according to the group.

“Parents can be a political force if they really come together as advocates,” Kittredge said. “But that requires some real learning about what those policies are and how they work.”

On Saturday, the parents divided into 12 groups, with one parent facilitating each table’s discussion based on prompts such as, “What are the things you look for when choosing a great school for your child?” and “How do you know that a school is preparing students for success in college and beyond?” Then the groups brainstormed answers and voted on which issues should be considered top priorities.

Some of the responses fell neatly in line with FES’s agenda. Dowdell, for example, said she was especially worried about how the next mayor will deal with charter schools.

“Bloomberg has always been a huge supporter of charter schools,” she said. “It’s kind of scary that he’s not going to be here anymore.”

But the two ideas that parents brought up most often — the need for safer schools and more parental involvement — spanned education’s ideological divide.

“Parents need to be educated about the system, not just involved,” said Marcia James, who is the PTA president at her child’s KIPP Academy charter school. She added that she thought rivalries between public and charter schools are misguided. “Do not think of it as charter versus traditional public schools. Think of it as what will help our children.”

Carl Powlett, whose son attends Excellence Boys Charter in Brooklyn, said he came to the event because he wants to get more men involved with parent organizations.

“It’s the kind of traditional role that men in our community think women should take on and they’re simply not willing to take the time,” he said. “Mothers are raising these kids by themselves even when there’s a father in the home and we need to fix that.”

FES will hold another town hall meeting for Brooklyn parents April 30 in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. The Harlem and Brooklyn town halls will prepare parents for FES’s mayoral candidate forum in mid-June.

FES does not plan to endorse candidates, and Kittredge said 60 percent of parents in the group have not yet decided whom to vote for. He also said the organization is less concerned about election day and more focused on the years to come.

“We want to work with whoever the next mayor is to be focused on issues that our families care about,” Kittredge said. “This is less about picking a victor and more about making sure families’ voices are heard.”

Families for Excellent Schools created posters describing each mayoral candidate's personal biography, including where they were born, what schools they went to and whether they have children.
Families for Excellent Schools created posters describing each mayoral candidate’s personal biography, including where they were born, what schools they went to, and whether they have children. Anthony Weiner was included as a potential candidate. “If he does end up throwing his hat into the ring, people should know what he’s all about,” one FES staff member said.
Before Saturday's event began, parents were invited to write their own answers to questions like, "What is the biggest challenge facing your children?" and "What is your biggest dream for your children?"
Before Saturday’s event began, parents were invited to write their own answers to questions like, “What is the biggest challenge facing your children?” and “What is your biggest dream for your children?”
After Spanish-speaking parents spent an hour brainstorming a long list of issues most important to them, they each voted on which ones they would focus on first.
After parents spent an hour brainstorming a long list of issues most important to them, they each voted on which ones they would focus on first. Two of the discussion tables were solely dedicated to Spanish-speaking parents and all of the FES presentations at the event were translated to Spanish for these parents.

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.