gala season

Kopp vows that TFA's "unstoppable force" will steer next mayor

Shipnia
Department of Education Senior Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg and Shipnia Bytyqi, a graduate of the high school he founded who now teaches at a charter school in the city, took the stage last week at Teach for America New York’s annual gala.

Teach For America used its annual New York City benefit last week to wade into the city’s political debate. Praising the Bloomberg administration’s education record, founder and board chair Wendy Kopp vowed that Teach For America and its supporters would fight to preserve the mayor’s education legacy after he leaves office at the end of the year.

“No matter who takes office,” Kopp said, “we are creating an unstoppable force.”

The remarks reflected Teach For America’s transition to playing a stronger role in public dialogue about education.

Kopp suggested that the organization would not throw its support behind a single candidate. “Progress isn’t a function of one leader,” Kopp said. Instead, she said, the educational change Teach For America supports requires “a constellation of committed souls.”

The strength of that constellation was on display at the nonprofit’s gala, held Wednesday at the glittering Waldorf Astoria hotel. In one night, the organization announced it raised $6.7 million, and speakers included Charlie Rose and Richard Parsons, the former CEO of Time Warner and Teach For America board member who also chairs Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Education Reform Commission.

A board member also announced the name of the organization’s new New York executive director, Charissa Fernandez. Currently the chief operating officer at The After School Corporation, an extended-day services provider and advocacy group based in Manhattan, Fernandez will begin in the role this summer, filling a position that has been vacant since Jeff Li announced he was leaving to return to the classroom last year. Fernandez said she had accepted the position just days earlier.

The evening, titled “Leadership Matters,” began with remarks from Department of Education Senior Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg, a Teach For America alumnus held up as a case study of the leaders the organization has produced here. A speaker also named a long list of alumni in leadership positions across the city, including De’Shawn Wright, deputy secretary of education to Cuomo and a 1998 New York City corps member and Matt Tepper, the campaign manager to Christine Quinn, the City Council speaker and mayoral frontrunner. Tepper joined Teach for America’s New York corps in 2004.

Chancellor Dennis Walcott and former chancellor Joel Klein also attended the event. Kopp thanked Klein for his support, noting that when she first approached him early in his tenure, he told her to come back once she had expanded the city’s Teach for America corps significantly. The number of city corps members reached more than 500 a year before the financial recession slashed the number of new teachers the city could hire.

In her remarks, Kopp, who is also a New York City public school parent, poked fun at what she called some “confusion” in the media about Bloomberg and Klein’s education record. (Local newspapers have said recently, for example, that the Common Core is raising standards where Bloomberg did not.) In fact, she said, the city’s schools have been transformed in the last decade. She described walking into large high schools years ago to find that only a third of students had shown up. Now, she said, the city’s schools are filled with teachers “on a mission” to help their students.

“Maybe someday we’ll see a New York Times article about all of this,” she said. “But for now, we’ll focus on the things we can control.”

When some members of the audience murmured in reply, Kopp smiled. “You can laugh,” she said.

Disclosure: GothamSchools’ board chair, Sue Lehmann, is a member of Teach For America’s national board.

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.