collaboration continuation

Fariña's big bet on school improvement takes shape

Teachers collaborating at M.S. 88, one of the city's host schools, last year.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s new idea-sharing initiative for schools launched earlier this month with a lot of fanfare, but not many specifics.

The Learning Partners program, set to more than triple in size next year, puts schools in groups of three with one school in charge of opening its doors to share what’s working for its teachers and students. And as the 21 schools now participating in a pilot version have begun those visits, it’s growing clearer how Fariña’s signature program—a big bet on collaboration, rather than competition—will play out.

One thing that’s clear from a two-page memo sent to principals is that the program won’t cost the city much, though it will be a big time commitment for schools.

This spring, principals at the 21 pilot schools will be reimbursed up to $10,000 each for overtime and to pay substitutes filling in for staff who are on school visits. Next year, the reimbursement for the entire school year will be $15,000, which would cost the city a little more than $1.1 million if 75 schools sign up as planned.

And with schools facing a Friday deadline to apply to be involved next year, the city has cast a wide net to attract partner schools. To qualify, the school must have a principal with two to four years experience, or have any one of a list of “high-need” qualities: at least 70 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced lunch or are black or Hispanic; or at least 20 percent of its population are students with disabilities, English Language Learners, or chronically absent, among other factors.

Fariña said she picked the initial group of host schools based on strengths like improving instruction for English Language Learners, fostering “student voice and independence,” and involving parents. M.S. 503 in Sunset Park, for instance, was picked for its use of “teacher teams,” while New Dorp High School was picked for its use of student data.

For the partner schools tasked with visiting host schools, the memo says that “approximately” four staff members will have to plan to spend about 10 hours per month working on the program.

Participating principals acknowledged the burden, but said it could be worth the extra work.

“Really, the learning was more of the incentive,” said Paul Didio, principal at P.S. 159 in Queens, which is participating as a partner school. “I’m only on the job for three years now,” he added.

The school-to-school approach to professional development will be a marked shift from the Department of Education’s approach under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who often brought in outside consultants and coaches. Speaking at the city’s teachers union conference this weekend, Fariña said she wouldn’t be eliminating consultants, but talked up the Learning Partners Program as a shift.

“The idea is that if we find schools that are willing to share with others the secret to their success, we can get better very quickly,” Fariña said.

While Fariña noted many of the schools leading her pilot were once struggling schools at risk of closing, it’s clear that the program won’t be an explicit intervention strategy for failing schools. One of the selection criteria for partner schools is that they are already doing well in a specific area, but want to go “from good to great.” (A department spokesperson said that would be determined through a holistic evaluation of the school’s goals.)

And though Fariña has made it clear she wants to scale the program up quickly, officials haven’t finalized how they will evaluate if it has been successful. Officials said that in June, schools will present to the department what they learned from visiting their host schools. Next year, the department will develop a more comprehensive evaluation for the program.

For now, New Dorp Principal Deirdre DeAngelis said that it would bring a dose of reality to professional development.

“We know our everyday obstacles,” said DeAngelis, whose school was picked to share its celebrated approach to analytical writing and small learning communities. “We’re not walking into some paid PD where someone’s talking philosophically in some general way.”

Fariña has staked the program on the idea that collaboration can be a key driver of school improvement, another break from Bloomberg-era policies. DeAngelis said the current school evaluation system, which measures schools against each other, created a culture of competition.

“It really created this atmosphere of, shut the doors and don’t share,” DeAngelis said. “I’m not going to tell you that when people were here I didn’t feel like, oh, I’m giving away all my secrets.”

Participating principals are also facing a less philosophical problem: how to fit the school visits into their schedules. Host schools were supposed to send teams on 10 school visits and host six visits of their own by the end of the year, but Didio said last week that he had only visited his host, P.S. 503, once so far.

Other principals in the 21-school pilot program said that they too haven’t been able to visit each other’s schools more than once in the three weeks since the launch. Given the state testing season and a 11-day spring break, it’s been difficult to find time to visit schools at the pace that the program will eventually require, they said.

Wake up to a comprehensive round-up of New York City education news by signing up for our Rise & Shine newsletter here.

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.