last chance

More students given transfers, but many are left in weak schools

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New York City Public School Choice applications and offers, based on data provided by the Department of Education

Far more New York City students were offered pathways out of low-performing schools this year under a new policy that gave priority to students who wanted to leave schools that are being closed.

But few students who were eligible to transfer even tried, and most students who did apply were told they must stay at their original school.

Of the 150,000 students eligible for transfers this year under the city’s Public School Choice program, about 10,000 applied to be placed at another school. Of those who applied, about 4,190, or 41 percent, were given offers. Their approval rate was more than twice as high as last year, when only about 16 percent of applicants were offered seats in different schools.

But the proportion of eligible students who applied for transfers fell from 7.7 percent to 6.7 percent, despite the Department of Education’s promise to advertise the transfer option aggressively.

“There’s some deeper thing happening in terms of barriers and people understanding the process and their rights and making the decision to apply,” said Emma Hulse, a community organizer with the New Settlement Parent Action Committee who helped parents fill out transfer applications.

This year, responding to criticism about its school closure process, the city introduced a new policy that prioritized students at schools that the Department of Education is phasing out. Previously, the city’s policy was that current students had to stay at the school until they graduated.

Students in phase-out schools did fare better than students in other schools that the state considers low-performing. About 12 percent of transfer applications this year came from students attending a phase-out school, according to the department, but those students received about 15 percent of transfer offers — meaning that about half of all students in phase-out schools who applied to transfer were given permission to.

Still, the gap between the number of students who applied for transfers – 10,127 — and who received offers — 4,194 — is significant. A Department of Education official said some families had diminished their chances of receiving a transfer offer by selecting only one or two choices for alternate schools, rather than selecting a wide array of options. The official could not say what percentage of applicants checked one to two options or many options.

Magatte Ndiaye, a parent of a P.S. 64 third-grader who we wrote about in a previous story about transfer options, said she chose at least seven different schools and bubbled in the “all other schools” option, which means she’d agree to any school the city wanted to place her daughter in. Her daughter was not given a single transfer offer.

“That means you want to keep my child in the school that’s failing … at least give me one chance,” Ndiaye said. “They can’t tell me they have nothing in all of the city of New York.”

Student placement depends on how many seats are available at the school he or she wants to transfer to. Priority is given to “lowest-performing and lowest-income” students, as defined under the federal No Child Left Behind law, which requires districts to create ways for children to leave schools that are failing. If there are more applicants than seats available at a particular school, students are picked at random for the available seats.

Hulse, who helped Ndiaye and 24 other parents fill out their transfer applications, said she’s spoken with 10 parents so far, of whom seven received at least one transfer option. She said while she’s happy that the city dramatically increased the number of students who were offered transfers, she noted that only 1,200 students at phase-out schools applied for a transfer when there are 16,000 students at schools that will be in the process of phasing out this fall.

She added that she would ask Department of Education officials to consider what it would be like to have their children jump through hoops such as charter school lotteries and transfer application processes and still end up with a low-performing zoned school as their only option.

“Think about what it feels like to those families who applied to 20 to 30 schools and are still stuck in a school that’s failing,” Hulse said.

Full data about transfer applicants and offers is below.

NYC Public School Choice Applicants and Offers | Create infographics

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.