as the dust settles

After city pays millions in SESIS overtime, complications remain

Screen Shot 2013-11-21 at 3.31.54 PMSpecial education teachers say it’s a common feeling: the students are gone for the day, and it’s time for the real work to begin. But if they need to record something on a student’s Individualized Education Program, it’s probably too late.

Early efforts to curb overtime payments have now become policy, as the Department of Education reminds principals to keep staff members out of SESIS—the online system that tracks special education students—after the school day ends unless the principal has committed to pay for that time. The reminders were spurred by arbitration that ultimately cost the city $41 million in belated overtime to teachers and staff whose after-hours work violated union contracts.

For months, some principals have been looking for ways to give teachers more time during the day to work with the notoriously glitchy system (made more frustrating by slow school Internet speeds). But teachers and principals say that serious problems remain, as students’ information is now updated more slowly, data entry takes time away from student interaction, and some teachers continue to work without pay.

“Is that the reality? Of course it’s the reality,” said Carmen Alvarez, the UFT’s vice president for special education, of the continuing issues. “Do I like it? No. Did we tell it to the DOE three years ago in writing? Yes.”

Keyatta Hendricks, a special education teacher at P.S. 463 in the Bronx, says the new rules mean her principal does pay her for the extra hours she spends on SESIS, which average four on an average week and shoot up to 10 hours during busy periods. “My principal knows it’s impossible for me to do my job and to do all the IEPs in the building,” she said.

Alvarez said that most principals seem to be abiding by those new guidelines. But Hendricks said the increased pressure to complete the data entry during the day has real consequences. “What happens is, I’m not able to really work with my kids the way I’d like to. I don’t have the time to devote to help teachers differentiate instruction to meet their needs. There are days I’m not able to work with my kids,” she said.

The union arbitration hasn’t changed things at all schools. Mark Anderson, the special education coordinator at M.S. 228 Jonas Bronck Academy in the Bronx, said the decision hasn’t changed when he does most of the work on students IEPs—at home, at night.

The extra periods he gets as special education coordinator and his lunch periods are mostly spent in meetings with parents and coordinating services for students, he said. Lesson planning takes up more time, and unexpected glitches in SESIS, like floating error messages that obscure windows and can’t be closed, aren’t always easy to work around.

“I try to get as much done at school as I can, but it’s physically impossible given the time it takes to enter in information,” Anderson said, who said he hadn’t had a conversation with his principal about being paid for that work. “For me, it’s just part of the job in order to get all of my work done.”

Darlene Cameron, principal at P.S. 63 Star Academy in Manhattan, said that the system only holds together because teachers are willing to squeeze the work in wherever they can. “In general, they’re doing a lot of stuff during their lunch time or during their prep time, when they really should be planning lessons,” she said. “It’s been really difficult.”

“This is what you call an unfunded mandate,” said Evan Schwartz, principal of Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical High School.

And though teachers and principals say they’ve been looking for ways to make the work less burdensome, the Department of Education maintains that the system doesn’t require work outside the school day at all.

A document meant to help teachers, therapists and other staff use SESIS to record information about students.
A document meant to help teachers, therapists and other staff use SESIS to record information about students.

David Brodsky, director of the Department of Education’s office of labor relations, said that the essence of the arbitration was the claim that work was made more complicated by SESIS itself. “We obviously disagree,” he said, noting that schools with bandwidth issues may have faced additional issues. “We don’t think the work being asked of them is complicated. This is something any professional should be able to do.”

In response to the arbitration, the city provided new guidelines to principals in February. Speech teachers, ESL teachers, vision and hearing teachers, and paraprofessionals are supposed to have specific time allotted for SESIS responsibilities. Others were advised to “prioritize” the tasks (occupational and physical therapists) or to “confer with their supervisors” to discuss scheduling (teachers, guidance counselors, social workers, and psychologists). Principals have not received additional money to pay teachers for SESIS work.

The city has been reminding principals of the changes this fall, and schools have devised some solutions of their own. At the Academy of Scholarship and Entrepreneurship in the Bronx, all students are in lunch during fourth period, which teachers use for curriculum planning. On Thursdays, special education teachers have that period free to work on SESIS, special education teacher Patrick Rush said.

Antoinette Isable-Jones, a spokeswoman for the principals union, criticized some of the city’s guidelines as “ambiguous suggestions that left school leaders with few options.”

“At this point, schools are doing all that they can within the confines of the decision to properly perform SESIS-related work,” she said.

All parties acknowledge that problems arise from the difficulty of working with SESIS itself. The system’s glitches have been well-documented since its introduction in 2011. At a City Council education committee meeting in October, Corinne Rello-Anselmi, the Department of Education deputy chancellor in charge of special education, said the city was still working to improve SESIS. “It’s had a bumpy ride,” she said.

The system did get a round of upgrades at the end of October to make the interface more user-friendly, though teachers who worked with it said they remained frustrated that those changes were mostly cosmetic.

“It doesn’t seem to make anything too much easier,” Rush said. “It’s all the same functionality.”

Patrick Wall 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.