Teacher talk

Fariña hints at changes to arts ed, high school admissions at UFT talk

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
UFT President Michael Mulgrew and Chancellor Carmen Fariña, along with principals union leaders, agreed on a plan Thursday to overhaul two struggling schools.

Changes to arts education requirements and high school admissions are on Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s mind, she told members of the United Federation of Teachers at their annual conference this morning in Midtown. But she urged teachers waiting for details to be patient.

“Stay tuned,” Fariña said often during a wide-ranging, 90-minute conversation with UFT President Michael Mulgrew and in response to questions from teachers. 

Fariña didn’t make any specific policy announcements, but said she wants to see improvements to instruction for students with disabilities and English language learners. Fariña also said she wanted schools to improve their arts education offerings, referring to a recent report that found most schools are out of compliance with state laws requiring arts instruction.

“We’re going to say to people, the arts are important and there is a compliance issue,” Fariña said. “For a long time, I think it wasn’t on people’s radars, but it’s certainly on mine and just stay tuned.”

Mulgrew and Fariña’s discussion also avoided the elephant in the room: the contract negotiations underway between the teachers union and the city.

But Mulgrew did say that the city was considering changes to its high school admissions policies, which have faced legal scrutiny and criticism from state education officials who have said the city’s system sends too high a proportion of high-need students to certain schools.

“I know this is something you are looking at very closely and it is something … that clearly is being looked at, and I think that’s all we should say on that,” Mulgrew said.

“On the radar,” Fariña said in response. “I’m not going to give you a specific answer, but it’s on the radar.”

Fariña is now more than four months into her tenure as chancellor, and for most of that time, Mayor de Blasio’s administration has focused its education efforts on resolving charter school space battles and rallying behind plans to expand pre-kindergarten.

But Mulgrew and Fariña seemed more than willing to skip the topics on Saturday: charter schools were barely mentioned and neither brought up pre-K. (De Blasio is scheduled to speak at the event, usually attended by dozens of the city and state’s leading Democratic elected officials, later in the day.)

On Saturday, teachers said they remain eager to hear the specifics of Fariña’s plans for taking the school system in a different direction than the previous administration, something both she and de Blasio have promised.

Fariña’s talk did little to clarify those plans, but teachers were willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. Fariña taught elementary school in Brooklyn for 22 years, and many said they were just thrilled that the person in charge of the school system had experience in the classroom.

“I’ve never heard a chancellor get such a round of applause here,” Mulgrew said, recounting past conferences when he would take a more defiant tone to protest the city’s education policies.

Fariña didn’t talk about charter schools until a teacher in the audience asked about issues of equity between district schools and co-located charter schools. Fariña said a new co-location working group met for the first time yesterday.

“I do think there’s going to be a different tone because we’re putting everyone at the table,” Fariña said.

Gregg Lundahl, a high school teacher from Washington Irving High School, said that he was thrilled that Fariña was the chancellor, but knows that sweeping changes would take time.

“There is hope, but she has to create mechanisms to make real change,” Lundahl said. “So far I don’t see those mechanisms yet.”

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.