Way out

Exit strategy for students at closing schools hard to navigate

CAP (Photo: Luke Hammill)
Edna Wilson and her granddaughter Gianee, a P.S. 64 student, protested the school’s poor quality before its closure hearing in February. Wilson is among those who were disappointed with the transfer options the city presented to students in schools that it is is phasing out. (Luke Hammill)

An escape route from the city’s most struggling schools that Department of Education officials touted as a significant innovation is unlikely to be an option for many eligible families, parents and advocates say.

When the city closes low-performing schools, new students aren’t allowed to enroll and current students stay on until they graduate. The arrangement has drawn criticism from state officials, families, and advocates who say high-need students see morale and support decline as their schools diminish in size.

This spring, just before finalizing plans to close 22 schools, department officials said they felt a “moral imperative” to help students who want to leave closing schools do so. They said they would mail transfer applications, including a list of possible destination schools, to all 16,000 students in the 61 schools that would be in the process of phasing out this fall.

“They presented it to families as an alternative to protect their children,” said Emma Hulse, a community organizer with New Settlement who has helped South Bronx families fill out transfer applications.

“But when the package actually hit people’s mailboxes, we realized it’s not a meaningful alternative,” she said.

The transfer rule represented a tweak to a longstanding process required under the federal No Child Left Behind law. Under that law, struggling students in schools that have landed on the state’s list of low-performing schools must be given the option to apply for seats in higher-performing schools. The new policy made students in closing schools that are not on the state’s list also eligible for transfer, and gave them all preference for open spots over students in other schools.

But the numbers suggest that few of the newly eligible students will end up in a different school. Last year, out of 143,141 students who were eligible for transfers, just 700 were placed in other schools through the transfer process, according to department data.

Department officials would not provide data about how many eligible students actually applied for transfers last year. But one major obstacle for those who did is that schools must have open seats in order to accept transfers. And high-performing schools tend also to have strong enrollments.

An added issue is that some schools that might be desirable destinations for students fleeing phase-out schools did not appear on the list of options the department distributed. (Transfer applications were due last month.)

Geraldine Maione, the principal at William E. Grady Career and Technical Education School in Brooklyn, said she has received phone calls from parents at nearby Sheepshead Bay High School, which will start phasing out at the end of the year. Maione said the parents want their children to be able to transfer to Grady, especially since it is setting up a new nursing program at a time when Sheepshead Bay’s is closing.

But Grady is on the state’s “Priority” list of low-performing schools, which means it can’t be on the list of schools that accept transfers — even though the city gave Grady a high B on its most recent progress report. Another nearby school, Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School, also cannot take Sheepshead Bay students for the same reason.

“We’re being measured by too many different rulers,” said Maione, who has struggled to maintain her school’s enrollment in recent years. “So which one do we stand by? I don’t know.”

Hulse said parents she worked with had encountered a similar problem. Many Spanish-speaking families preferred bilingual programs. P.S./M.S. 194, which received an A from the city, could have been a good match for their children, but it is on the state’s “Focus” list. (It is also operating well over capacity already.)

“If the list was expanded to include other schools offering bilingual options in the Bronx, like P.S./M.S. 194, we could have given these parents better choices,” Hulse said.

The state used data from the 2010-2011 school year to create its Priority and Focus school lists, State Education Department spokesman Dennis Tompkins said. But the most up-to-date NYC progress reports available are based on last year’s data, so schools that have shown improvement aren’t on the transfer list. Tompkins also said the state and city evaluate schools slightly differently.

But he said any disconnect between the city and state accountability lists would not affect many students.

“Even were it permissible to meet federal and state requirements regarding public school choice through offering students the choice to transfer to a Focus or Priority School that had a high NYC Progress Report grade, the effect on the number of transfers would likely be extremely modest,” Tompkins said.

GothamSchools found 24 Priority or Focus schools in the Bronx and 20 in Brooklyn that received at least a B progress report grade and at least a “proficient” quality review rating from the city. Those schools do not appear as possible transfer destinations on the lists families have received, even though some schools on the list got lower grades from the city.

But even if families can find a high-quality school with open seats, getting in and getting there remain challenges.

The department publishes transfer packets in nine languages. But Hulse said many Spanish-speaking parents came to New Settlement needing help with applications because they received information only in English.

“It’s terrible because it’s something so important and I can’t fill it out on my own,” said Ana Montero, whose child attends P.S. 64. “I have to find someone else to help me.”

Also, many parents depend on school buses to get their children to school. But the city won’t provide busing for students who attend school outside of their home borough, a problem for elementary school families looking to secure a transfer. High costs forced the city to eliminate inter-borough busing in 2011 for No Child Left Behind transfers, according to Robert Carney with the Office of Pupil Transportation.

Magatte Ndiaye’s daughter is in the third grade at P.S. 64. Since she has to be at work at 7 a.m., she can’t take her daughter to school in Manhattan, and she doesn’t think there are many good school options in the Bronx.

“If they send her to Brooklyn or Manhattan … and she can’t have buses, she’ll have to stay at P.S. 64. And I don’t like that because it’s a failing school,” she said. “And she has two more years … even if she passes here and goes to middle school, she may be lower than the other people.”

Edna Wilson, the grandmother of another third-grader at P.S. 64, shares Ndiaye’s concerns. She found a number of good schools on the transfer list for her granddaughter — but they were all in Manhattan, too far for her to travel.

“It seems like they give you one thing and then take something else away,” Wilson said.

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.