last-ditch efforts

Fahari Academy parents look to de Blasio to keep doors open

Nimia Gutierrez (center), with school staff (left), her daughter and her eighth grade son.
Nimia Gutierrez (center), with school staff (left), her daughter and her eighth grade son.

Gail Cudjoe had heard about Fahari Academy’s struggles. But when her son won a seat in the school’s fifth grade lottery, she pulled him from their zoned elementary school to start at the grade 5-8 charter school, believing it would be something better.

Four months into the school year, she’s pleased with how her son is doing at the school. But the city isn’t: In November, officials announced Fahari would be the only school it moved to close this year, despite an awkwardly-timed mayoral transition.

For Cudjoe’s son and dozens of other fifth graders, the school’s closure would mean attending their third school in just over a year. So parents and board members are now trying enlist local elected officials to help change Department of Education officials’ minds.

“Where are you going to move them to?” Cudjoe asked, standing outside the school’s auditorium after a meeting this Saturday with city officials there to answer precisely that question.

Fahari’s charter expired on Dec. 15, but received a six-month renewal this week in order to stay open through the end of the school year. But the DOE, the school’s legal authorizer, has no plans to keep it open, citing a litany of academic and stability issues that have dogged the school since its opening in 2009.

The campaign for local political support has worked, to an extent: City Council member Eugene Mathieu has pledged his support, it came too late on Saturday, arriving 30 minutes after officials with the Department of Education left. United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew wrote a letter in support for the school, whose teachers are represented by the teachers union, to Brooklyn Regent Lester Young. But Young stayed mum at this week’s Board of Regent meeting when Fahari’s six-month renewal came up for approval.

Supporters say the most important elected official in Fahari’s fight still hasn’t started his job. They hope that Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, who campaigned against closing low-performing schools, would reverse the city’s decision — though he’s also expressed doubt about helping charter schools.

“We understand that a new mayor and a new chancellor are coming in January 1,” said Fahari’s board chair Jason Starr. “Perhaps with different priorities and values we can have a different outcome.”

De Blasio did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

For now, parents who want the school to stay open are balancing advocacy with an understanding of the reality of the situation. The city has sent parents a list of nearby charter schools to apply to, and several said that they’ve already added their name to waiting lists.

The uncertainty has already compelled some to leave. In the month since the school learned its charter would not be renewed, 11 students have moved to a different school, although school officials said not all of them were related to the non-renewal.

Starr criticized the city’s handling of the authorization process for their charter this fall. An initial renewal agreement that Starr received just hours after they learned Fahari was being closed included the names of board members from a different charter school that faced closure several years ago, Ross Global Academy.

“I wasn’t altogether surprised at that basic mistake,” Starr said referring to renewal letter, “because that’s what this process has been like this entire time.”

At the meeting, Sonia Park, executive director of the Department of Education’s charter school office, declined to comment. Her staff referred questions to the department’s press office, which did not respond to requests for comment.

Regardless of the authorization process, the city has said the school’s academic outlook is bleak. Fahari has never received higher than a C on its progress report, and earned an F this year. On last year’s state tests, Fahari’s scores were 10 percentage points below the Crown Heights an Fl district average in English and four points below in math.

Officials at the school acknowledge the ongoing academic challenges, but points to improvement in areas that the city first flagged more than a year ago. Teacher and student retention are way up and suspension rates are among of the city’s lowest. They also highlight a 30 percent special education enrollment rate as evidence of its commitment to retaining high-needs students.

Radha Radkar, a former Fahari teacher sees things differently. She was an early supporter of the school’s turnaround efforts, but left in June because she said she lost confidence in the school’s direction.

“In my time there, when the school would receive constructive feedback from the DOE on how to improve things, I didn’t feel like there would be an honest effort to really reexamine how to turn the school around,” said Radkar, who is now teaching in higher education.

Parents and school officials said Fahari’s new principal, Stephanie Clagnaz, hired in June, is the perfect person to address the school’s challenges. Under Clagnaz, the school scrapped the school’s reading curriculum because it wasn’t aligned to new learning standards and began using lesson modules posted to the state education department’s curriculum website, EngageNY.org.

Parents said that Clagnaz has created a sense of community at the school, which includes giving out teachers’ cell phone numbers so they can call about homework. Many said they appreciated her presence in the hallways at the start of each day, where she greets students as they come in.

Clagnaz has held several jobs in recent years, the most recent of which was a nine-month stint in Long Island as a curriculum official, according to her LinkedIn page. She also founded and ran Empower Charter School in Crown Heights from 2008 to 2010.

She was also one of five principals who worked at Ross Global before it closed.

“I look at this as a challenge,” Clagnaz said after Saturday’s meeting. Having been at two low-performing charter schools, she said that Ross and Fahari were “worlds different.”

“The board here is 100 percent supportive of the administration and teachers,” she 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.