the long view

Ex-DOE official with de Blasio ties offers a NYC schools vision

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She says she’s not interested in the job herself, but Carmen Farina has a clear vision for how Mayor-Elect Bill de Blasio’s chancellor should lead the city’s schools.

That vision includes some big ideas — including converting empty classrooms into dormitories for homeless students to forcing real estate developers to build space for early education — that the retired educator says have been on her mind recently. On Monday, Farina shared her thoughts publicly on an education panel about the transition underway at City Hall between the Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations.

Farina said her philosophy around education policymaking represents an approach that’s been absent at the Department of Education in recent years.

“I want to see us have a system where people do things because they have a sense of joy about it, not because they have a sense of fear,” Farina said during the panel, which was part of a daylong conference about the transition at the CUNY Graduate Center. 

Farina’s four-decade career as a teacher and administrator in city schools included Mayor Bloomberg’s takeover of the system in 2002. She helped oversee an initial restructuring under mayoral control, serving as one of 10 regional superintendents and then moving up to head the department’s instructional division for two years.

Farina has been an unofficial advisor to de Blasio on education, a relationship that dates back more than a decade to when they worked in the same Brooklyn school district. Before he was elected to the City Council in 2001, de Blasio served on the District 15 school board at the same time when Farina was superintendent.

The close ties have led to speculation that she might be de Blasio’s pick for chancellor, a rumor she squelched last month and again on her way out of the room after her panel appearance. She declined to offer the name of a good candidate to fill the position, arguing that de Blasio and people who are helping him with the transition should handle the selection privately.

“When we voted for Bill as mayor we assumed he heard our concerns and would make the right decisions on his picks for commissioners and chancellor,” she said.

Some of what Farina said on the panel hewed closely to priorities that de Blasio campaigned on during the election season. Like de Blasio, she called for the inclusion of more voices than just the mayor’s on the Panel for Educational Policy, the 13-member school board that sets education policies.

She also offered an idea that could address space issues that could stand in the way of de Blasio’s proposal to expand the number of available pre-kindergarten seats and after school programs for middle school students. Real estate developers, she said, should be required to build early childhood education centers that would also serve as community centers for middle school students.

And Farina had a radical solution to serve some of the roughly 18,000 children who are currently housed in city’s homeless shelter system.

“We need to turn some of our large high schools into dormitory schools,” she said, so that homeless students can be accounted for in the hours when they’re not supposed to be in school. (Many large high schools currently house multiple schools, putting them near or over capacity.)

Farina was critical of the Bloomberg administration’s approach to low-performing schools, which largely relied on closing them and opening new schools in their place. An alternative to closing schools, she proposed, is to pair principals from schools with mirroring student populations, where one school is performing well and the other isn’t, to exchange ideas about what works and what doesn’t.

“Principal-to-principal, teachers-to-teachers, are the best vehicle to professional development that I know,” she said.

The panel featured plenty of praise for the some current Bloomberg policies, too. Joining Farina on the seven-member panel was Cass Conrad, executive director of CUNY’s Early College Initiative, who touted the hundreds of small schools that have been created in the last 12 years.

Another panelist, Department of Education Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky, said the city’s evolving school accountability system — dominated by schools’ annual progress report card grades — was worth saving, but with some changes. He said recent changes to the system were providing a more accurate picture of school quality than ever and that bringing test scores, which currently make up most of the scores, into balance with other measures would improve them more.

He also said a pilot to allow schools to opt out of the citywide accountability system had attracted roughly 50 schools and would further test different approaches to measuring school performance.

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.