a second look

For three co-located schools, Learning Partners pilot leads to plenty of suggestions

PHOTO: Geoff Decker

The eight schools housed in the massive John F. Kennedy campus in the Bronx get along. Schools share floors of the building, administrators meet regularly, and teachers often stop to chat while passing in the hallways.

But when it comes to teachers knowing what goes on inside each other’s classrooms, the schools might as well be in different boroughs.

“I’ve been in this building for seven years and I’ve never been in this room,” said Wanda Dingman, an assistant principal at the Marble Hill School for International Studies, sitting inside a High School for Law and Finance classroom.

Dingman was finally in the room, which is outfitted with wooden benches for a criminal law class’ mock trials, through the city’s new Learning Partners program. The program is the extension of Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s guiding theory that schools can improve by sharing their best ideas with others. And as the pilot program gets underway this spring, Chalkbeat tagged along for one of those idea-swapping visits to ask, how is it working?

The day-long meeting included staff members from Marble Hill, Law and Finance, and Bronx Engineering and Technical Academy—schools that have a lot in common and make up one of the pilot program’s seven “triads.” All three high schools are inside the JFK campus, so teachers are a just flight of stairs or a few doorways from some classroom visits. They also benefit from sharing a school support organization, New Visions for New Schools.

But Law and Finance is an open-enrollment school that serves a different student population than Marble Hill, which itself serves a high proportion of recent immigrants and English Language Learners. Law and Finance has more than twice as many students with special needs and a high percentage of overage students. The school’s attendance rate is 82 percent, about 10 points below the city average.

As the day began, staff members said that even small amounts of mutual feedback have already sparked change. After one visit to Marble Hill, BETA is redesigning its seven-week summer school program for incoming freshmen based on Marble Hill’s model. Principal Karalyne Sperling said that if it’s successful, she might incorporate it into a new career and technical program that she’s developing.

Those conversations continued as Law and Finance hosted staff members from both Marble Hill and BETA—when it was clear that the program is causing some anxieties as well.

The full-day visit started with a presentation from Law and Finance assistant principal Tyrone Iton, who said he wanted Marble Hill to help his school improve the “rigor” and consistency of its classes. Law and Finance’s challenges were occasionally on display during the classroom visits: In one economics class, where students were calculating what their yearly raises should be in order to keep up with inflation, visiting adults outnumbered the students.

But the teachers’ and administrators’ takeaways were varied, and ideas didn’t always flow from host school to partner school. Marble Hill’s Dingman said she had learned some things herself, pointing to the group’s visit to a 10th grade English classroom where students passed around a conch shell and debated the role that two Lord of the Flies characters played in the murder of Piggy.

“The teacher said almost nothing at all,” said Dingman, which she attributed to high student engagement with the Socratic-style seminar. “I’d like to see more of that in my school.”

Still, the partner schools said they were looking to Marble Hill’s example. One key to that school’s success in graduating their mostly high-need students at an 89 percent clip, and preparing a larger-than-average percentage of them for college, is its project-based curriculum, teachers said.

Teachers and principals agreed that the length and number of visits prescribed by the Learning Partners are likely to prompt concerns. BETA Principal Sperling said she had to issue reassurances to teachers wary of missing class as students were preparing to take end-of-year Regents exams.

“We’re a small school, so for five of us to be out, that’s a big deal,” said Jessica Goring, principal of Law and Finance. “But do we make it work? Absolutely, because we believe in it.”

Next year, the city plans to include 75 schools in the program. The city received 253 applications, including seven from charter schools, officials said.

As the program grows, principals at the JFK campus all said they hoped to remain together since the pilot program started so late into the school year. The city hasn’t guaranteed that yet.

Joseph Urrico, a social studies teacher in his fifth year at BETA, said that collaboration had never felt possible in the past. “We share floors,” he said, “but there’s so many things to do.”

Correction: A previous version misattributed a quote to the principal of Bronx Engineering and Technical Academy. The correct attribution is to Jessica Goring, principal at the High School for Law and Finance. 

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.