circling back

With board uninterested in principal's lies, little accountability for Urban Dove principal

When Chalkbeat reported in February that the leader of a transfer charter school in Brooklyn had been forced out of previous jobs in education for his dishonesty, some of the school’s board members seemed stunned.

“I’m very disturbed,” Urban Dove Team Charter School board member Patrick Fagan said then. “I’m not making any excuses. I’m at a loss for words.”

But the board of trustees is now carrying on business as usual, and the school’s principal, Lewis Thomas III, appears to have faced little further scrutiny from those who hired him and who hold the power to evaluate him.

“I understand that people in the past make mistakes, just like the students that we serve,” Fagan told Chalkbeat recently. “I want to get deeper into this. I can’t find the time out of my schedule.”

Fagan was speaking for himself, not the board, which has declined to comment on its hiring or vetting processes or to say whether it looked more deeply into Thomas’ past in the last two months. Teachers at the school said that the school’s founder, Jai Nanda, told the staff in a meeting that the board stood behind Thomas, and board members greeted Thomas warmly at their meeting this week.

In February, Chalkbeat reported that Thomas had been forced to resign as principal of a charter school in Ohio after telling elaborate lies about his past employment, including that he served as a senior adviser to Barack Obama. His exit was reported by the Cleveland Plain-Dealer in 2006.

Thomas was also fired from Phase 4 Learning Center, a nonprofit organization that operates alternative education centers in Pennsylvania, according to the organization’s CEO.

But those jobs are still alluded to and exaggerated on Urban Dove’s own website, which says Thomas served as “chief academic officer” at a charter school management company overseeing 15 schools—though Phase 4 says he was a regional director overseeing one site and sent him a cease-and-desist letter after he repeatedly inflated his job title in public.

The Urban Dove website also claims that Thomas was recognized by the U.S. Department of Education for his leadership as a principal in 2006, though Thomas declined to provide any evidence of that award. His experience in the two years prior was being forced out of the Ohio charter school after four months in 2005 and, according to the Plain Dealer, spending just two months at a charter school in Washington, D.C. in 2004.

At the school’s board meeting this week, members were congratulatory as they discussed the school’s progress. Disciplinary incidents were down, and attendance was up from 66 to 73 percent, Thomas told the board members.

If they had any questions about Thomas’ leadership, they didn’t ask them at this week’s meeting—or answer them when asked by a reporter. “It’s not a forum for discourse back and forth,” board chair Michael Grandis said of the meeting.

One staff member said that teachers at the school were too focused on getting their students to come and stay at school to focus on the school leader’s continued bold claims of past employment. The school serves ninth and tenth graders who have accumulated so few credits that they are at risk of not graduating, and uses an innovative schedule focused on sports to keep students engaged.

“He told me he was a lawyer. Then he told me that he was a doctor,” said one staff member, who requested anonymity because they were told not to speak to reporters. In February, Fagan noted that Thomas’ résumé had included a line about being a member of a board of trustees at the University of Illinois—a claim he backed away from when questioned by Urban Dove.

But Fagan said he’s heard no recent complaints.

“No parent has reached out to me with a concern that their student is not being served,” Fagan said. “I have chosen personally, I will look into it after the school semester.”

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.