back in the saddle

Santiago Taveras, a former DOE official, returning as a principal

Santiago Taveras will be the new principal of DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. (Photo courtesy of Facebook)
Santiago Taveras, a former deputy chancellor, will be the principal of DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. (Photo courtesy of Facebook)

All it took was one interview question for Santiago Taveras to realize he wanted to be a principal again.

Taveras, a former Department of Education deputy chancellor, will be the new principal of the struggling DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx this fall.

The position marks a reversal of the trajectory Taveras’s career has taken up to now. After starting his career as a city teacher, Taveras headed several schools before landing a position in the Department of Education’s central administration. He was the deputy chancellor for teaching and learning until the department dissolved that division, then served as the city’s first and only community engagement czar.

Taveras left the department at a time of turmoil in April 2011, just days before Cathie Black’s brief tenure as chancellor ended. He became a vice president at Cambridge Education, the consulting firm that conducted the first quality reviews in New York City schools, which Taveras oversaw while at the department.

But in recent months, Taveras said he wanted to work directly with students again, so he interviewed for a schools superintendent job in New Jersey.

During the interview, he was asked to describe the most gratifying work he had done in his career. Taveras talked about a group of 10 students he mentored when he was a teacher at Central Park East Secondary School in East Harlem.

“Those 10 boys taught me more about life, about the struggles of young men, than I had ever learned from my two master’s and bachelor’s degrees,” he said. “I started getting emotional during the interview, and I was thinking to myself, ‘What am I doing trying to be the superintendent of a school district when I know for a fact what I want to do is be closer to students?'”

Taveras called his old colleagues at the Department of Education and asked what he needed to do to become a principal again. He said Chancellor Dennis Walcott was kind enough to “grandfather” him into the principal pool, and a week later Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky offered him the job at DeWitt Clinton.

Taveras said he knows there’s a lot of work to be done at the high school, which was considered for closure this past year due to dismal progress reports and is now set to shrink substantially while also sharing space for the first time. He has spent the last couple of days at the school listening to teachers’ and students’ concerns and so far has three main priorities for the improvements he wants to make.

First, he said he wants to build up the school’s technology infrastructure. He also wants to set up professional learning teams to help teachers better understand the new teacher evaluation system and how to align their instruction with the Common Core learning standards. Taveras also wants to rebuild school morale to counteract the negative reputation that many have of DeWitt Clinton today.

Taveras has experience closing schools, after heading South Bronx High School after the city decided to phase it out in 2001. And he has even more experience opening new schools: He was the founding assistant principal of East Side Community High School, and the founding principal of both Banana Kelly High School and the Urban Assembly Academy for Careers in Sports.

But taking over a school with a long and storied past and trying to turn it around after a period of decline so that it becomes a school that students want to attend will be a new challenge.

“You have to come in and get them to buy into your vision,” Taveras said about the staff.When he spoke with teachers on Friday, he said he kept repeating the importance of everyone working as a team otherwise they will not be successful at turning the school around.

“Teachers came up to me afterward and said, ‘I’m on that team, I’m ready to work with you to get this done,'” he said. “That was inspiring… It was something that I was not expecting because of course, I’m somebody new who they don’t know… but I can see there’s an urgency to turn the school around.”

He said he thinks his experience at Tweed taught him that with every decision there are always advantages, disadvantages, and different stakeholders to consider, but at the end of the day, the choice has to benefit the children.

“I don’t think anybody has gone from deputy chancellor back to kids,” Taveras said. “It shows, I believe, one of the reasons I was welcome at Clinton on Friday is that they understand this isn’t about media, this isn’t about anything else other than doing something I’m happy to do, building community, turning schools around, and making people feel empowered about the work they’re doing to teach children.”

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.