Hoping for Hubs

No action yet on de Blasio's community schools plan, but advocates stay hopeful

PHOTO: New Settlement Parent Action Committee

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to turn 100 schools into full-service community hubs is among his most ambitious education proposals, and a popular one among advocates and educators. But so far it has seen little action.

Advocates recently called on the city to spend $12.5 million next year to transform 25 schools into such hubs, which could offer medical and social services, art and fitness programs, tutoring and more to students and their families. Instead, the mayor’s $73.9 billion budget directs hundreds of millions dollars to pre-kindergarten, after-school programs, arts education and other school initiatives, but sets aside no funds for community schools.

But in a sign of the goodwill between the new mayor and community-based education groups, which clashed with the Bloomberg administration on most education issues, advocates have not picketed outside City Hall or lobbied lawmakers to resist the mayor’s budget plan. Instead, they are continuing to meet with city officials, drum up local support, and identify potential community schools, all out of faith that the new administration will live up to its word.

“We’re not at a point where we’re concerned,” said Natasha Capers, a parent member of the Coalition for Educational Justice, a consortium of advocacy groups that called for the community schools funding. “I fully feel like this is a priority for them.”

Community schools partner with nonprofits and city agencies to provide an array of services during the school day, in the evenings, and on weekends. Some offer homework help, sports leagues, dance classes, adult education, and free counseling, health, dental, and vision services. Roughly 100 city schools provide such services, coordinated by groups such as the Children’s Aid Society and the United Federation of Teachers.

When he was the city’s public advocate planning to run for mayor, de Blasio accepted the UFT’s invitation to visit a much-heralded community school in Cincinnati. As mayor, he has promised to double the number of community schools in the city by the end of his first term. He tasked Deputy Mayor Richard Buery, who previously headed the Children’s Aid Society, with overseeing the plan.

Buery is also directing the city’s costly and complex expansion of pre-kindergarten and after-school programs, which have devoured much of the administration’s attention to date. But recently he has met with members of CEJ at City Hall to discuss the community school plan, and last week he and the Chancellor Carmen Fariña toured a community school in the Bronx and chatted with parents about the plan.

For their part, CEJ members held a series of outreach events last week in low-income neighborhoods in the Bronx and Brooklyn where they asked parents and school leaders what services could benefit their schools and what local groups might provide them. Parents and students in the New Settlement Parent Action Committee, a CEJ member group in the Bronx, staged a rally to declare their support for community schools.

CEJ also released a report last week calling on the mayor to make good on his promise by rolling out the first batch of community schools this year and by providing $500,000 to each school. Group members said city officials have indicated that they are still in the planning stages and have not committed to a timeline or funding targets.

Marti Adams, a City Hall spokeswoman, said the mayor is committed to developing the schools by 2018 and that “initial conversations are currently underway.”

The city has not created its own community schools before, so the initiative may take more planning than the pre-K or after-school expansions, said Jane Quinn, director of the National Center for Community Schools, which was created by the Children’s Aid Society. She added that city officials are currently engaged in “hardcore planning” around the initiative.

The Children’s Aid Society’s 16 community schools in New York have budgets of between $400,000 and $1.5 million, depending on the size of the school and the services they offer, Quinn said. About two-thirds of the money comes from city, state, and federal funding streams, such as Medicaid or after-school grants, and the rest is obtained from private sources, she said.

Quinn said it is unclear whether there are enough local service providers in the city’s high-needs neighborhoods to support 100 new community schools. But there is no question the city will have to need to devote resources to the plan to get it off the ground, she added.

“I think if the city really wants to adopt this as a preferred reform strategy—and I think they do—it’s definitely going to cost some money,” she said.

Angel Martinez, whose three children attend public schools in the Bronx, said schools desperately need more resources to address students’ many social and emotional needs. She said the previous administration’s strategy of creating new schools did not solve the underlying problem of unmet student needs. De Blasio’s community schools plan has the potential to change that, Martinez said—if he carries it out.

“He did promise 100 community schools,” said Martinez, who is a member of the Parent Action Committee, “and we are holding him accountable to that.”

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.