matter of time

Success Academy's charter rally shutdown plan draws criticism

0925131725Brooklyn City Councilman Stephen Levin is not happy that some charter school students are getting let out of class next month to attend a political rally, and he wants Chancellor Dennis Walcott to do something about it.

“This would never be allowed at a public school, and it has no place in charter schools either,” Levin said in a statement that his office emailed this morning. “I call on Chancellor Walcott to intervene so that Ms. Mosowitz’s [sic] political rallies are not being held at a time when students should be learning.”

Levin — who in June called for a ban on new charter schools — was referring to the Oct. 8 charter school rally that’s being organized in part by Success Academy Charter Schools founder and CEO Eva Moskowitz. Other charter schools are involved as well — organizers said they expect more than 15,000 people to participate — but Moskowitz alone is the only charter school operator shutting her entire network for the morning.

Moskowitz is closing her schools while the event takes place so that staff and students can attend. It’s not technically mandatory for parents to attend the event, but Moskowitz made it clear in an email last week that their attendance is important.

Organizers of the rally, caught off guard by the focus on Moskowitz’s role, have rushed to insist that the event will represent a much larger swath of the city’s 183-charter school sector than Success schools. Jeremiah Kittredge, executive director of Families for Excellent Schools, one of the groups organizing the event, said no parents or students would be required to go.

“Most schools are approaching this as a civic field lesson that students can opt into,” Kittredge said in a statement.

Moskowitz’s schools have been the target of criticism from Democratic mayoral nominee Bill de Blasio, who has said he would charge rent to charter schools that operate in city-owned buildings — calling out Success schools in particular.

“These issues are tremendously important,” Moskowitz told parents in a letter on Saturday that urged them to attend. “If we lose ground — literally, if we lose access to public space — we cannot fulfill our commitment to you and your scholar.”

Levin suggested that Success parents aren’t being given much of a choice over whether to attend.

“Forcing parents and children to march in a political rally is obscene and has no place in our schools,” Levin said in the statement. “It is insulting that someone who is supposed to be educating New York City’s children would choose to pull kids out of school in order to benefit her political agenda.”

“Families that are there are there by choice — it’s the key principle that undergirds everything we do,” Kittredge said in the statement.

It’s unclear what, if any, steps Walcott could take to actually put a stop to the rally even if he wanted to — which he likely does not, because the Bloomberg administration supported the expansion of the charter sector. Charter schools receive public funds but are privately managed, and the Department of Education has little control over how the schools structure their schedules.

Although Levin’s statement reflects concern about students losing out on valuable learning time, most charter schools have longer days and years than district schools. Moskowitz calculated that by eighth grade, Success students will have accrued an extra 2.7 years of class time over district school students.

“We treat ‘time’ as one of our most precious commodities and we don’t make decisions to engage in civic field trips lightly,” Moskowitz wrote in an email to principals in her network on Monday.

It’s not unusual for charter schools to take students out of school to advocate for civic issues that are aligned to education policy. Every year, the charter sector takes a group students to Albany to lobby lawmakers to be more supportive of charter schools. And classes are suspended in the Democracy Prep network on election days so students can help get out the vote.

Still, other school leaders who are planning to attend the event said today that they’re taking a less aggressive approach.

“For us it’s really focused on getting our families out,” said Public Prep CEO Ian Rowe, who runs a three-school charter network with about 1,100 students. Rowe said his schools would stay open and that only two classes of eighth graders would attend “to witness the action as an experiential field trip.”

Moskowitz appears to making her plea to parents in person as well. She is scheduled to visit Cobble Hill Success Academy to meet with parents Friday morning for an “important parent meeting,” according to a flier that is posted at the school.

Morty Ballen, CEO of Explore Charter Schools, said he would be hosting a series of meetings with parents to urge them to attend. But he said his teachers and students would stay in school.

Ballen said the tougher decision for him was whether to attend at all. At last year’s rally, which left the city’s charter sector divided, Ballen decided not to join Moskowitz at City Hall.

But this year, with the mayoral election a potential turning point for the charter sector, Ballen said, he believed it is important to unite charter school parents in one place to be heard.

“I don’t think this is about Success,” Ballen said. “I think this is about a moment as a sector where we find out what it takes moving forward to operate successfully.”

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.