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City to give longer school day, literacy help to middle schoolers

Chancellor Dennis Walcott and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn spoke at the Urban Institute of Mathematics in the Bronx on Monday.
Chancellor Dennis Walcott and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn announced a new phase in the Middle School Quality Initiative at the Urban Institute of Mathematics in the Bronx.

For thousands of sixth-graders at 20 city middle schools, the school day is about to get a lot longer.

The schools will offer an hour of intensive literacy tutoring and 90 additional minutes of community-inspired programming such as yoga and gardening, as part of the city’s latest effort to spur improvements in the lowest-performing middle schools.

Chancellor Dennis Walcott and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn announced today that they are adding 40 schools to the city’s two-year-old Middle School Quality Initiative. Twenty of those schools will be randomly chosen for the three-year extended day pilot program.

Walcott made middle schools his priority when he took office, rebranding  an initiative that Quinn had spearheaded as MSQI and expanding it to include focuses on literacy, teacher collaboration, and using data to drive instruction. Since then, MSQI has grown from 18 to 49 schools, and in the fall, it will include 89 schools.

“These two things together, a longer day and high needs intense literacy training … We know that’s part of the solution to get children reading on level,” said Quinn, who is running for mayor, at a press conference at one of MSQI’s original schools, Urban Institute of Mathematics in the Bronx. “When you can read on level, the sky’s the limit.”

The city listed literacy as a top priority for the middle schools from MSQI’s start, but an exhaustive search last year for city schools that do literacy particularly well turned up no examples. Now, the department is partnering with a group that so far has specialized in math instruction, not literacy, to develop the curriculum for the extended day program.

Harvard University’s EdLabs — run by Roland Fryer, the sociologist whose studies have also brought the city experiments in performance pay — will work with the city to create the curriculum and train tutors to send into the schools. The paid tutors will each work with just four sixth-graders, and all sixth-graders will be required to spend an hour daily in tutoring sessions. EdLabs plans to measure the success of the literacy tutoring by comparing students with tutoring to students in similar schools without literacy tutoring.

To fill the other 1.5 hours of the extended day, the city is turning to a community-partnership model that some of its schools have used before. The After-School Corporation will work with the DOE to help schools bring in paid “community educators” from organizations such as the YMCA and Settlement Houses, according to TASC’s Susan Brenna. What a school offers in those 90 minutes will depend on what it wants to put its resources into and what community organizations have to offer, she said, citing service projects and gardening programs as examples that TASC has seen before.

Teachers at the schools may also choose to stay the extra hours, and they will be compensated for their time, Brenna added.

The MSQI expansion and extended day pilot program will cost $6.2 million. It’s being funded by $4.65 million in grants from the New York City Council, Robin Hood and the Carson Family Foundation. The DOE is also contributing $1.55 million.

Because the city and teachers union have not reached a deal on teacher evaluations, the city cannot compete for state funding that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has made available for schools who want to extend their days.

Extended day programs have drawn criticism for being too expensive for schools to fund without private donors. But Quinn said the city would come up with the funds if the pilot succeeds.

“Will it cost more money to take it citywide? Of course it will. But when we know it works, we’ll have to make it a priority and make that happen,” she said.

In a statement, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who is also running for mayor, said the pilot program did not go far enough.

“Either you believe every child deserves a safe place to go after school or you don’t. We don’t need another pilot project or half-measure to prove these programs work,” he said. “What we need is the will to fund them and make them available to every working family.”

De Blasio has proposed a plan to fund extended learning time by taxing households who make more than $500,000 a year.

But another critic of past middle school improvement efforts said he was optimistic that the latest initiative could be different. Pedro Noguera, a New York University professor who chaired the City Council’s original middle school task force, said the extra time and formal literacy program could improve student performance the way that past city efforts have not.

Noguera, who sits on the The After-School Corporation board, said he is glad that community organizations will be brought into the schools.But he said he is concerned that intense tutoring at the end of a long day could turn students off.

“A lot of schools are already struggling with keeping kids engaged. To do another hour that they just had a full day of may not be something kids want to partake in. And it will be a lot of wasted money if kids don’t show up,” he said. “Hopefully people closer to the kids will understand it’s not simply a matter of grinding the information into their heads.”

City officials and advocates for extended learning time say they are not worried about demand.

“We do not expect parents to opt out,” Walcott said. “We see them saying give me more, more, and more.”

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.