New school to honor Mandela already easing political tensions


Just one day after Nelson Mandela died at his home in South Africa, city officials announced that a new high school will be named in his honor—and its creation appears to have won over some prominent critics of co-locating schools.

The new Nelson Mandela School for Social Justice will open inside of Boys and Girls High School, the Bedford-Stuyvesant school that Mandela visited in 1990 when he was celebrated by Mayor David Dinkins and the rest of New York City.

Walcott called the school “a perfect way to give testament to the man who is just admired by so many and transformed lives of so many people, and generations of people. And touched personally the people of Brooklyn as well as the people of New York City.”

The school’s social justice theme and connection to Mandela’s visit to the neighborhood have also smoothed tensions that have been simmering for years at Boys and Girls over the possibility of the city adding another school to the building, which already contains the small Research and Service High School.

In October, Boys and Girls’ principal Bernard Gassaway said publicly that he might resign if the city put another school into his building. Gassaway didn’t respond to requests for comment today, but Rev. Conrad Tillard, who serves on the school’s advisory council, said that Gassaway and the group had warmed to the idea.

“The legacy of Nelson Mandela transcends everything,” Tillard said, adding that Gassaway’s support had been a recent development. “Many people on the advisory committee had never supported co-location, but this was one people felt was worthy of the historical context of the school and could bring so much to the school.”

Boys and Girls has long served as a symbolic center of the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, and the school has a powerful group of allied politicians and clergy. They have been widely credited with keeping the school open, despite low graduation rates and test scores that have earned Boys and Girls three Fs in a row on the city progress reports. The school now has fewer than 1,000 students, down from more than 4,000 in 2007.

Today’s announcement attached a name and a focus to a school that the city had already proposed, and will be voted on at the Dec. 11 Panel for Educational Policy meeting.

State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, who also serves on the Boys and Girls advisory council, said that was a compromise forged from weeks of discussion about whether to attach Mandela’s name to a single school or to the entire building. Ultimately, she said Gassaway pushed to keep the Boys and Girls’ name. “He did not want to lose the Boys and Girls High—symbolically, the institution,” she said.

The city’s current plans are for Nelson Mandela High to open in September 2014, so the school will also need support from mayor-elect de Blasio’s administration. Despite de Blasio’s statements before and during the campaign that he wants to pause the city’s policy of co-locating schools, spokeswoman Lis Smith indicated some support for the plans on Friday.

“The idea of naming a school after Nelson Mandela is a very worthy one. We will confer with our new Chancellor on this matter when he or she is named,” she said.

The Nelson Mandela School follows the Bloomberg administration’s typical model for new schools—small and focused on a specific topic. Montgomery said discussions have focused around replicating the model of Bedford Academy, a small school also located in Bedford-Stuyvesant that has been celebrated for high test scores and its male and female empowerment classes.

Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky, who was born in South Africa and whose father was forced to flee that country in the 1970s for his activism, said that he would look to involve himself in the process of developing the school’s curriculum in the new year once the school is approved.

“When I was a teacher, we spent time teaching this material and kids found it really fascinating, especially because of the role of young people in the resistance in South Africa,” he said. “There’s a lot of connections to be made, and I think that there aren’t many moments in history that intersect as powerfully with American history … South Africans were really inspired by Martin Luther King and the work of the civil rights movement here, and the anti-apartheid movement in turn inspired a movement here.”

Outside Boys and Girls High, a staff member shooing students away from reporters insisted that the new school would never open under a new mayor. But Walcott, who had been in discussions with some at Boys and Girls High during Mandela’s illness, made it clear that he expects that it will.

“The honoring of a man like Mr. Mandela is something that transcends elected politics, that transcends administrations,” he 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.