New York

De Blasio defends controversial decision to keep schools open during storm

Updated with today’s school attendance numbers

Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city’s decision last night to keep schools open was made with “imperfect information” about a snow storm that hammered New York City just as educators and students began their morning commutes.

At a late morning press conference to update the city about weather conditions, de Blasio said that forecasts projected “as little as three inches on the ground by the time kids walked in the door of their schools.”

“Based on our knowledge of what sanitation could do over night, we were convinced that kids could get to school this morning,” de Blasio told reporters from the Office of Emergency Management offices in Brooklyn.

Not many of those students made it to school, according to preliminary attendance figures released this afternoon. Just 44 percent of students were in school, even lower than when schools were closed in January after a storm dumped 12 inches of snow in some parts of the city and temperatures hit single digits. Average daily attendance typically hovers around 90 percent.

De Blasio ultimately defended the controversial call, which has been criticized by both the teachers and principals unions and parents who said the inclement weather made streets and sidewalks too unsafe to expect people to make it to school.

“So many families depend on their schools as a place for their kids to be during the day, a safe place, a place where they not only are taught but they get nutrition and they are safe from the elements,” de Blasio said. “So many of these families have to go to work. They do not have a choice. They need a safe option for their kids.”

But Chancellor Carmen Fariña said she might revert back to making announcements about school closures later in order to make more informed decisions. Back on Jan. 3, when 6.4 inches fell in the early morning hours, Fariña announced at 4:50 a.m. that schools were closed.

Last night’s call was made at 10:33 p.m., hours before any snow started. Fariña said she has pulled an early trigger in recent weeks so that parents would not make alternative plans in case schools were closed at the last minute. 

“Might there be times that we decide not to call it the night before but to wait until the next morning?” Fariña said. “That’s one of the things we’re going to talk about and think about.”

In 2004, Mayor Bloomberg made a preemptive call before a major snow storm hit the city. But in that case, Bloomberg announced that schools would be closed and said he did it early for parents who needed to figure out what to do with their children.

“I want parents to be able to start making plans,” Bloomberg said at the time. “One of the difficulties in canceling school in our city is that parents depend on schools to take care of their kids. An awful lot of our families, the parents work, and so it really is an imposition on them in finding somebody to take care of the kids if the schools are closed.”

At the press conference, Fariña said that lateness from students and teachers would be excused. A department spokesman said student absences would be coded as “inclement weather”, but personal days would still be counted for teachers who called out.

“It has totally stopped snowing,” Fariña said. “It is absolutely a beautiful day out there,” a comment that she later clarified to mean that conditions had improved compared to earlier in the morning. Warmer temperatures turned the snow to rain and roads cleared up, but a stiff headwind and slush on the sidewalks made walking difficult.  

Criticism continued to pile up from educators and parents. TV weatherman Al Roker piled on over Twitter, saying de Blasio’s comments were misleading since forecasts consistently predicted that snowfall would hit the hardest immediately before schools opened. 

It’s the fourth major storm since de Blasio entered office six weeks ago in what is amounting to an unusually harsh winter for the city. De Blasio has gotten stricter since he cancelled school on Jan. 3, keeping the system open in subsequent storms.

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.