"kind of like a rebirth"

New energy felt at school where cheating principal was removed


Lights dimmed on stage in the auditorium at the Theatre Arts Production Company School and a cocktail waitress in a short dress and high heels walked out. Behind her, flappers and American expatriates bickered and drank wine in a Paris jazz club while waiting for her to sing.

The scene that students acted out on Wednesday was from an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises,” a novel that the students read earlier in the year. Directing the students from the front row was theater teacher Bud Thorpe, who cued music and lights through hushed orders into a headpiece.

“This is kind of like a rebirth,” Thorpe said backstage after the performance as he considered the school’s — and his own — recent fortunes.

It has been just over a year since the Bronx secondary school closed a dark chapter. Last March, officials removed TAPCO’s founding principal after finding that for several years she fudged student transcripts, inflated test scores, and misused school funds. Chancellor Dennis Walcott said Lynn Passarella’s behavior was “dishonest and disgraceful, and shows a blatant disregard for principal responsibilities.”

Under Passarella, the school glimmered with accolades, including the top score on the city’s progress report, but suffered internally through teacher turnover while students received an incomplete education. After her removal, some test scores plummeted, a sign that some of school’s lofty accomplishments were perhaps too good to be true.

Those scars are still fresh. But the school is seeking to reinvent itself by doubling down on the programs for which the performing arts school was named. The Hemingway production, Thorpe said, which included nearly 50 students, was a sign of the progress made in just one year.

The school is also rallying around its new leader, a former fireman and blues singer from Ohio who moved to New York City in 2005 to teach.

“After the disaster, as we called it, the school’s reputation was tarnished,” Thorpe said. “It was Ron who polished it.”

Ron Link had not been a principal before getting picked to oversee TAPCO’s turnaround, a job he began the day after Passarella was yanked from the school. (The city moved to fire Passarella, and she is currently suspended without pay while she appeals the decision.)

“I sensed it was a wounded community,” said Link, who said he spent the rest of the 2012 school year listening to teachers and learning about their skills. What he found, he said, was that many of them had extensive arts backgrounds but were not teaching arts classes.IMAG0166edit

“The arts were alive here,” said Link, who said he was drawn to the school because of his own background as an actor and musician in Cleveland. He likes to tell visitors about his band, which opened for many famous acts, including Run-D.M.C. in 1983.

One of the teachers whose background was being squandered was Thorpe, who often clashed with Passarella during her tenure. Link said he had been “stuck in a classroom,” away from the stage where he previously taught theater, as a result.

“There was an immediate bond and it was really over the summer, after he came in and had time to listen and to communicate,” said Thorpe. One of the ideas they had was to commit to putting on a theater production on a large scale, which would engage more students in the school’s mission. “When we started talking, he said, ‘You can do this.’”

Link started the year by moving much of the arts instruction in house,  improving morale and bolstering the school’s budget at the same time.

“All of the arts were farmed out, like $4,500 to $6,000 per month, to outside consultants,” Link said. “I spent less than that for the entire year and I have affiliations and partnerships with 12 [or] 13 programs within New York City that cost next to nothing.”

The school was also significantly underequipped to serve the 20 percent special education population. Link hired six special education teachers with dual arts certifications, who have spent the year working with students with disabilities and running their own dance and acting clubs.

Raising student achievement remains a challenge. After years of inflated scores, proficiency on eighth grade English and math tests fell last year, the first without Passarella, by 21 and 22 points, respectively. And not a single student passed the Algebra II Regents exam, just two years after nearly 90 percent of students did.

Several students who took the exam in earlier years alleged that their teacher had given them the answers to test questions. The teacher, Anastasiya Kornyeyeva, is under a new investigation with the city, Department of Education officials said. A former teacher at the school said the investigation is tied to cheating.

Link would not comment on the case, but he said he has been diligent about making sure that no part of the old culture continued.

“Anything that I encountered that was contrary to Department of Education policy, I submitted it to [the Office of Special Investigations] for review and possible investigation,” Link said.

Link said he hired someone just to comb through student transcripts to figure out which ones were improperly credited, and “we whittled it down to what’s real and what’s not.” Link said they found “a handful” of students whose were at risk of not graduating.

Teachers say Link has brought a sense of order to the school day and cohesion to their instructional practice. He has planned curriculum maps for each subject that get revised regularly through team meetings, collaboration that teachers said happened rarely in previous years.

Link said he believes the school is now on the right path, and its website boldly makes that claim.

“The Clouds are Clearing!” reads TAPCO’s homepage, which touts a strong school quality review from the city and a B on last year’s progress report, with “more authentic achievement” to follow in the future.

Next, Link plans to toughen the school’s admissions process by requiring students to demonstrate their commitment to and skills in the arts, which he said the old administration did not do.

“People are going to have to come ready with a monologue, a piece to dance,” Link said. “They’re going to have to want to be here.”

Link received an endorsement of his own recently, too. The newly formed student council, one of more than 20 clubs and programs at the schools, asked him to meet them in the auditorium to review plans for end-of-year events. When he got there, they surprised him with a tribute to his first year on the job. A video they dedicated to him featured students who often thought back to what it was like in previous years. Some said they “weren’t really learning” and, now, were happy to be “actually doing our work.”

“The school probably would have closed down,” a student said.

Thank You, Mr. Link from TAPCO Video Productions on Vimeo.

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.