election 2013

Schools play starring role as primary election day finally arrives

triptychMonths of mayoral candidates’ promises and pavement-pounding culminate today, when New Yorkers head to the polls to pick their favorite candidate from each political party.

City schools will play a starring role in the election. About 650 of the city’s school buildings are being used as polling stations today, meaning that unfamiliar adults will be filing in and out all day, especially at drop-off time this morning, to wrangle with old-style voting machines. For some of them, Election Day is the only time they will ever step inside a public school.

(Voting today? Take our voters guides to the Democratic and Republican primaries with you, and don’t forget our tracker of all candidates’ education positionsNY1, the New York Times, City Limits, the Center for Arts Education, among others, all produced resources for education voters, too.)

For the most part, schools will be trying to maintain the routines that they established on Monday, the first day of the school year. But that could be difficult as candidates bring their coteries of supporters and reporters with them to vote.

And at least one network of schools is turning election day into a learning experience. The Democracy Prep Public Schools charter network is sending students from its eight schools onto the streets of Harlem to get out the vote as part of its “I Can’t Vote But You Can” campaign. The network is focused on civic participation and wants to see the primary turnout lifted far above the 11 percent rate from 2009, the lowest in the city’s history.

It’s the second year of the campaign. Last year, Democracy Prep students spent Election Day in November getting out the vote for the presidential contest, when it was difficult for some of them to contain their enthusiasm for Barack Obama.

Most last-minute activities today will be far more partisan. The UFT will be pulling out all the stops for the candidate it endorsed, Bill Thompson. Union members will campaign with Thompson in Harlem this morning and will hand out campaign literature and man phone banks in multiple locations all afternoon.

Union president Michael Mulgrew, who campaigned with Thompson on Monday, will be at Thompson’s campaign headquarters tonight, hoping for the good news that frontrunner Bill de Blasio did not clear the 40 percent threshold that would eliminate the need for a runoff election. The most recent poll about the election, released by Quinnipiac Polling Institute on Monday, suggested that de Blasio could jump that hurdle — or that the Democratic primary would turn into a “Battle of the Bills.”

On Monday, Thompson started the last 24 hours of his campaign greeting parents outside his mother’s old school, P.S. 262 in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, where she taught for 26 years. Thompson was in full campaign mode, taking some time to attack de Blasio, who has surged in popularity in recent weeks in polls.

Referring to de Blasio’s goal of taxing high-earning New Yorkers to fund an expansion of pre-kindergarten and after-school programs, which has come under scrutiny because it faces steep political obstacles, Thompson said this election “is not about making things up. It’s not about fantasy programs.”

Halfway across the borough, de Blasio defended himself during a bustling campaign stop at P.S. 58 in Carroll Gardens.

Monday’s polls showed that nearly a fifth of likely voters said they still felt open to switching their votes. But parents in central Brooklyn dropping of their children at school on the first day had mostly made up their mind.

Doranda Taitt, whose two children attend two of the new charter schools in the area — La Cima and Bed-Stuy Collegiate — said Thompson had her vote. “I’ve heard good things about him,” she said.

Thompson was even flanked by officials who send their children to charter schools. Robert Cornegy, Jr., a candidate for City Council, appeared with Thompson and Mulgrew, whose union endorsed Cornegy’s opponent.

Two women said they liked Comptroller John Liu, who has trailed in the polls amid scandal surrounding his campaign. One was Iva Webster, who was bringing her great-granddaughter to P.S. 262 for the first day of first grade. The other was Monet Johnson, who was sending her daughter to her first day of full day pre-K at the school.

“I’m a city worker and he’s the only one who’s said he’d give us raises,” Johnson said.

But outside a school where City Council Speaker Christine Quinn was campaigning on the Upper West Side, several people on Monday said they still had not made up their minds between de Blasio and Quinn, who lately has been polling third.

Jane Escolastico’s daughter Julia is starting first grade and son Jeremy is starting fifth grade. She said she’s voting for Quinn not because of anything she heard today but because she remembers Quinn helping advocate for a gym and an elevator where her oldest son went to high school, the NYC iSchool in Tribeca. “I’ve seen her in action working hand in hand with schools,” Escolastico said.

Another mother, Jenny Falcon, said she hadn’t made up her mind. She pressed Quinn about her support for charter schools, saying, “You need to make new public schools, not just new charter schools.” When Quinn continued her pitch, emphasizing her plan to add schools citywide, Falcon pressed on. “Not just charter schools,” she said. “If you’re mayor, please, really!”

Sarah Darville contributed reporting

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.