mass appeal

Sea of parents and advocates take to streets for charter schools

IMG_5679A political rally turned out thousands of parents, students, and staff from the city’s most prominent charter schools for a march across the Brooklyn Bridge and a plea for support from whoever next occupies City Hall.

Dressed in neon yellow shirts and carrying signs to summarize their demands, crowds began assembling in Cadman Plaza around 7:30 a.m and swelled as one chartered bus after another dropped off a new group from a different corner from the city. A stage on the west end of the park blasted music and personal testimonies from teachers, parents, and school leaders invited to speak.

Dozens of schools from at least 11 charter networks were represented at the rally, according to organizers. They estimated that 17,500 people attended.

As the crowd waited to funnel onto the bridge’s walkway — a process that lasted more than two hours because of the mass of participants — parents were unified when asked why they attended.

“We love the school and we just want to make sure the next mayor gets the message,” said Aaron Lieberman, who has two children who attend Harlem Success Academy.

Organizers sought to hammer home a broader message about the role of charter schools in New York City’s school system, which is that parents should be able to choose where to send their child to school.

“It’s only politicians who care about charters or districts,” said Eva Moskowitz, founder of the 20-school Success Academy charter network, which appeared to make up a majority of parents in the crowd. “It really doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is a school of excellent quality.”

There was nary a reference to the names of candidates vying for City Hall, though Republican Joe Lhota greeted families at City Hall and made clear his support for their schools. But the pleas appeared to fall on deaf ears of Lhota’s opponent, Democrat and frontrunner Bill de Blasio, whose campaign pledges have stirred fear among supporters of charter schools in New York City, which have thrived under Mayor Bloomberg.

De Blasio doubled down on those pledges on Tuesday, saying through a spokesman that “believes that well-resourced charter networks should pay for the use of school space, as charter schools do across the country.” He’d also stop co-locations, an arrangement that has afforded schools free space inside city-owned school buildings, “until we can better assess their impact.”

Both changes would affect a majority of the city’s charter school sector. Over 60 percent of the city’s 183 charter schools are housed in city-owned buildings, and more than half of the city’s 50 proposals for new schools and co-locations involve charter schools.

Dave Levin, co-founder of KIPP, a national charter school network with several schools in the city, said he hoped the rally would show how much support there is for charter schools’ continued growth.

“The reason we have 70,000 kids in charters today in New York City, the reason we have 50,000 kids on wait lists, is because we’ve had access, as public schools serving public school families, to the public facilities,” Levin said, referring to free rent afforded to charter schools in city-owned buildings. “Changing that access would significantly reduce the growth in the number of seats available in New York.”

Charter schools are publicly funded, but privately managed and the vast majority do not employ unionized teachers, one reason they are so divisive. Most have longer school days and year and they typically out-perform their district school counterparts on state tests. On last year’s state tests, Success Academy’s proficiency rates — 82 percent in math and 58 percent in English — was significantly higher than city rates, which were under 30 percent in both subjects.

But charter schools serve fewer high need students than the average charter school, and critics accuse the schools of having policies that dissuade low-performing students from staying enrolled.

They also say one reason that charters have been able to thrive is because of private support from wealthy backers on their school boards, one reason de Blasio has pledged to charge those schools rent.

In response, Moskowitz asked if the policy would be applied for district schools with well-heeled parent groups and foundations that raise money.

“To suggest that because charter schools get some amount of philanthropy to support public education that they pay rent is ridiculous,” she said. “There are district schools in the city of New York whose PTAs raise considerable sums. Are the politicians going to call on them to pay rent?”

Success parents and students, whose participation was urged by Moskowitz and enabled in part because she closed down her schools for the duration of the rally, dominated the rally. Some parents indicated that Moskowitz’s doomsday predictions about the possible fate of charter schools under a new mayor had gotten through.

“I want them to keep the schools open,” said Charlene Porterfield, a Harlem Success Academy 3 parent. “I’m not sure who’s trying to close the schools, but I’m willing to fight.”

De Blasio, who criticized organizers of the rally for using inaccurate scare tactics, has not said he’d close any charter schools. But his plan to put a moratorium on future school proposals could affect Success’ plans to expand its schools into the middle and high school grades.

That would be a shame, Success Academy parents said. Angel Cornejo said she had a “bad experience” in a district school when her son entered kindergarten. She enrolled her son in Bronx Success Academy 3 this year and said she’s seen a big difference.

“He learned more in one week than an entire year at his old school,” Cornejo said.

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.