the end

Stressful admissions process ends with sigh of relief for some students

PHOTO: Sarah Darville
Divine Jones with her mom, Danimaris Fonseca.

Leaving the citywide high school fair in September, Tiffany Mejia, an eighth grader in the Bronx, had her heart set on Food and Finance High School in Manhattan.

By December, when she had to submit a list of up to 12 high school choices to her guidance counselor, she had pushed Food and Finance to second place in favor of Humanities Preparatory Academy, a small school in Chelsea that enrolls both traditional ninth-graders and students who have previously struggled in other high schools.

And by Tuesday, when her school gave students the high school admissions letters the city had released the day before, Mejia said she just wanted the waiting to end. She was one of several students Chalkbeat met during the process and followed up with this week.

“I was scared, I was excited, I was nervous, I was just crazy,” Mejia said.

Mejia got her third choice, Wadleigh Secondary School for Performing and Visual Arts in Harlem — a small school that has repeatedly landed on the city’s list of lowest-performing schools in recent years. She said she was happy because she had heard good things about the school and because a close friend who also had her sights set on Food and Finance back in September was also matched with Wadleigh.

“That was one of the most exciting things about it, because I wanted to go to the same high school as at least one of my friends,” Mejia said. She said she didn’t have much sympathy for friends who weren’t matched with their top choices, because other students didn’t get matched at all.

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Ten percent of students citywide weren’t matched with schools during the first round and will have to reapply for unfilled seats and seats in new schools during a second round this month.

Jose Vilson, who teaches math at I.S. 52 in Washington Heights, said the number of students at his school who weren’t matched with any high school had declined from last year. But he said other students were just unhappy with their matches and might decide to appeal and try their luck in the second round.

Vilson said he and his colleagues knew from experience that it would be hard to get students’ attention after releasing the letters. So they gathered the eighth graders in the auditorium during the last period of the day on Tuesday.

 “There’s either a ton of excitement or a lot of sadness going on,” he said. “There’s very little in between.”

Divine Jones, an eighth grader who got her first choice, said she and her classmates felt the high stakes of the admissions process even though they could opt to attend their charter network’s high school.

“If we don’t get our top choice we don’t feel smart even though we are,” said Jones, who attends Bedford Stuyvesant Collegiate Charter School, part of the Uncommon Schools charter network. “One of my classmates didn’t get any of her choices. I felt bad because I know how smart she is but the high schools didn’t get to see that.”

Jones decided to apply to a district high school rather than staying at Uncommon for high school. She got into her first choice, Medgar Evers College Preparatory School in Brooklyn, a selective school of about 1,200 students.

“It feels awesome,” she said. “I”m going to be in a new environment with different people who are like me and ready to learn. I don’t have to hide my nerdiness and stuff.” Jones said she had hoped to get into a specialized high school but now felt that Medgar Evers would be “a little more me-ish.”

Jones said she wasn’t the only one at her school to look beyond Uncommon’s high school, which combines students from several middle schools run by the network.

“We go to a charter school [and] we have to stay in our seats,” she said. But when high school acceptance letters were distributed, “people were literally jumping out of their seats they were so nervous and excited.”

Her mother, Danimaris Fonseca, said she visited Medgar Evers during the application process with her daughter, and found that the environment there reminded her of the Brooklyn school she attended as a child, the Philippa Schuyler Middle School for the Gifted and Talented.

“One of my main things was like a nurturing family-like community environment. Because I know high school can be very intimidating, and I didn’t want her to come from a charter school which is really small and go to a huge high school where she felt intimidated by kids and teachers,” Fonseca said.

Another Brooklyn charter school, Explore, reported that nearly half of the 54 eighth graders were accepted to selective high schools, and one was among the seven black students accepted to the ultra-elite Stuyvesant High School. Just one student who had aimed for a public high school had not been matched, according to a spokeswoman for the network.

Some students, including Anthony Ureña, still haven’t received their letters.

As of Tuesday evening, Ureña, who attends eighth grade at I.S. 215 in the Bronx, still hadn’t heard where he would attend high school. His first choice is the High School for Arts and Business in Queens. He said teachers told him he’d find out on Friday, and that he and his friends don’t mind the wait.

“You know, you’ve got to wait for a long time to see if you got accepted or not,” he said. “So we mostly stopped talking about it.”

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.