through the cracks

Students are being zoned for P.S. 64, a school the city is closing

CAP (Photo: Luke Hammill)
P.S. 64 families protested the school’s poor quality before its closure hearing in February. (Photo: Luke Hammill)

A quirk in the city’s complicated school system means that some families are being told that their children must attend a school that the city deemed so low-performing that it should not be allowed to enroll any new students.

In the South Bronx, the Department of Education this year decided to close P.S. 64, a long-struggling elementary school — with some parents’ support. In September, the youngest children at P.S. 64 will begin attending two new schools that are opening in the building, in keeping with the city’s preferred model for phasing out low-performing schools, while older students will stay on until the last ones move on to middle school.

But even though no new kindergarteners will enroll at P.S. 64, some students have been zoned for the school. About two dozen families at P.S. 170, a nearby school that serves children in kindergarten through second grade, have been told that their children are zoned for third grade at P.S. 64.

Unlike P.S. 64, which has received D’s on its two most recent city progress reports, including an F for student performance, P.S. 170 received a B on its most recent progress report.

Parents at P.S. 64 are so concerned about the fact that the school will still serving students until 2016 that they are rallying at the Department of Education’s headquarters today to ask for improvements. According to Emma Hulse, an organizer with the New Settlement Parent Action Committee, which has worked with P.S. 64 parents for years, P.S. 170 families that are zoned for P.S. 64 will also attend the rally, which is aimed at drawing attention to the larger issue of how the next mayor will improve struggling schools.

P.S. 170’s parent coordinator, Maritza Zapata, said the school recently held a meeting for families of the 24 second-graders, out of 88 total, who are zoned for P.S. 64. To avoid the low-performing school, families must petition the city for a different assignment using a “Placement Exemption Request.”

Department officials said they had previously discussed the fact that P.S. 64 is taking in new third-graders with community members. But Marilyn Espada, president of the District 9 Community Education Council, said she had not been informed about the zoning.

“It’s not a good idea because those kids are doing good where they’re at now,” she said. “Why bring them to a school that’s being phased out?”

That’s the same question that many P.S. 170 parents are asking as well.

Cristina Contreras, whose son attends P.S. 170, graduated from P.S. 64’s sixth grade years ago. She said she is under the impression that the school is completely different now, with lots of fighting and little homework or student learning.

“I’ve heard of kids who were A students at P.S. 170 and they’re failing at that school once they get there. … I wouldn’t want any kid to have to end up in a school where it’s already known they’re going to fail,” she said. “It’s mind-boggling that children are being zoned to that school.”

Like any families that don’t like their zoned school, parents of P.S. 170 students who are zoned for P.S. 64 can apply for permission to go elsewhere. But the department is under no obligation to fulfill their requests, which must be filed by July 19 at the borough enrollment office.

And even if they do receive another choice, busing isn’t available for children who attend schools other than the ones they are zoned for — an issue that has prevented other families from taking advantage of the option to leave low-performing schools for stronger ones.

“Over the last 10 years have worked to fix a broken system that forces children into failing schools,” said a department spokesman, Devon Puglia. “We do everything we can to ensure students have access to high-performing schools throughout their neighborhood.”

Kisory Valdez applied for a transfer for her son, who attends P.S. 170 and is zoned for P.S. 64 next fall. She went to the borough enrollment office and asked if her son could attend P.S. 204, a successful school that other students at P.S. 170 are zoned for. The office told her that her son couldn’t go there, but he could transfer to P.S. 70, which Valdez said is equally as bad as P.S. 64. The school also posts very low test scores and does not move students forward quickly, according to city and state data.

As Valdez explained what she’s heard from P.S. 170’s principal, other parents, the city, and New Settlement, it’s clear how confusing the process has been for her.

“I’m totally exasperated,” she said. “I feel very hopeless and frustrated.”

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.