Brooklyn parent leaders look for political support on school diversity

Elected parent leaders in District 15 presented a resolution Thursday that called on City Council members and the Department of Education to prioritize diversity in schools.

A group of parents in Brooklyn’s District 15 are calling on the city to make school diversity a new priority.

Frustrated by statistics that show decreasing diversity in their district’s schools, and enrollment policies they see as unfair to their own children, some parents, principals and teachers said they wanted to see change at a two-hour forum on Thursday. But the more than 100 participants came to few firm conclusions about the kind of diversity they want, and who is responsible for creating it.

The lack of specifics illustrates a central problem in tackling admissions and enrollment policies: making change involves navigating a tangled web of parent preferences, city policies and longstanding district boundaries.

On Thursday, the district’s elected parent leaders called on City Council members to require the Department of Education to make clear commitments to school diversity. The resolution, which the Community Education Council introduced but didn’t vote on, asks the department to develop admissions plans for new schools that prioritize diversity and to require schools to regularly release data on their diversity.

The resolution, which comes a few months after a UCLA analysis of federal education data said that New York state was home to the nation’s most segregated schools, broadens discussions about school integration that have been happening at individual schools throughout the district, including P.S. 133 and Park Slope Collegiate. But advocates said they are now looking to attract wider support.

At the forum, parents disagreed on what factors should be considered when trying to increase school diversity, with some attendees asking why the resolution did not mention race specifically. The resolution also focuses on policies for new schools, rather than reworking policies at existing schools.

City education leaders did address school diversity a few weeks ago on the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board decision, and State Education Commissioner John King recently called out the city for its enrollment policies, which he said left neighboring schools serving dramatically different populations of students.

But at a recent town hall meeting in District 15, Chancellor Carmen Fariña said that discussions about diversity should take place school by school, for now. She also said that the city is working on increasing diversity in specialized high schools, and said the city was “disappointedin the results of the recent school segregation analysis on the anniversary of Brown v. Board.

Nalia Rosario, president of the district’s Community Education Council, said it was time for City Council members to call for specific commitments from the Department of Education.

“This is when the elected officials come in,” Rosario said.

City Council member Brad Lander, who represents Park Slope and co-hosted the forum with City Council member Carlos Menchaca, agreed that change would be welcome, but said that more local conversations were needed before elected officials could move forward.

After the meeting, Lander said he is drafting a bill that would require schools to put together annual diversity progress reports. He noted that the resolution’s calls for new schools to prioritize diversity was especially important, since the city’s capital budget includes funding for three new District 15 schools in the next five years.

City Council members Carlos Menchaca (left) and Brad Lander hosted a parents forum to discuss diversity in schools on Thursday.
PHOTO: Mary Ellen McIntire
City Council members Carlos Menchaca (left) and Brad Lander hosted a parents forum to discuss diversity in schools on Thursday.

“We don’t have an admissions process or a line-drawing process which says diversity has to be a central question when we create a new school,” Lander said.

David Tipson, director of New York Appleseed, a nonprofit that was influential in creating a diversity-focused admissions policy at P.S. 133, an elementary school in District 15, said the conversation showed that some parents were willing to look beyond zoning policies that have benefitted them.

“For this to happen in District 15, where people really value their zone privileges, it shows a lot of courage and leadership from the CEC and from the elected officials,” he said.

Another challenge facing parents who want to see school diversity improve is that schools don’t have a lot of control over their own admissions processes. P.S. 133 was given specific permission to draw students from its own district and District 13 in an attempt to engineer above-average diversity.

Some parents noted that increasing school diversity also means making sure schools have the resources to offer programs attractive enough to reduce the fierce competition for a few of the most well-regarded schools.

“Every parent wants the best for their kids,” said P.S./M.S. 282 parent Corinne Frinnah. “And every parent here would like to see diversity.”

Geoff Decker contributed reporting.

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.