Take Two

Report: City to resurrect special district for struggling schools

The education department is looking to resurrect a special district designed to support struggling schools, according to a news report, a signal that the new administration is holding to its pledge to flood the lowest performing schools with resources before it considers closing them.

The city is forming a plan to group about a dozen struggling high schools under a single district superintendent and offer them special support, according to the New York Post. Another cohort of elementary and middle schools would be kept separate but also receive extra support.

Chalkbeat could not confirm the report, and the Department of Education did not respond to questions on the plan. The United Federation of Teachers, which championed the now-defunct district that the new plan reportedly draws from, declined to comment.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s major school-improvement plan so far has been a partnership program that would group especially strong schools with schools that are weaker in specific areas to share effective practices and ramp up training for all teachers.

The new teachers contract also contains several provisions meant to boost schools, such as more time for professional development and extra pay for teachers who take on additional duties or work in hard-to-staff schools. Fariña has also promised to give greater assistance to middle schools.

But Fariña has yet to describe how the department will approach long-struggling schools that need intensive support. She has been critical of school closure, a signature tactic of the Bloomberg administration that Mayor Bill de Blasio has denounced, and said the department will not issue A-to-F report card grades in favor of more nuanced metrics.

De Blasio’s 2013 campaign platform called for an “early warning system” to identify schools that need immediate help and a “Strategic Staffing Initiative” that would replace the principals of the most challenged schools and send in a team of experienced administrators and teachers. The struggling-schools district would incorporate elements of de Blasio’s plan, according to the Post.

If the department established such a district, it would harken back to one that former Chancellor Rudy Crew created in 1996 to turn around 10 struggling schools, which eventually grew to include 58 schools before former Chancellor Joel Klein dissolved it in 2003.

Schools in the so-called Chancellor’s District received a slew of supports: smaller class sizes, longer days and years, new curriculum materials, more professional development, and extra staff. Teachers who worked in some of the schools received bonus pay. As those supports were rolled out, the Chancellor’s District schools eventually spent $2,400 more per student than the city’s other struggling schools.

The District schools achieved some limited success, with fourth-grade students’ reading scores outpacing those of other schools on the state’s list of struggling schools, according to a 2004 report. That report did not evaluate the 10 high schools in the program.

The UFT and others celebrated those results and pointed to the District as an alternative to school closure. But critics said they did not justify the amount of resources devoted to the schools.

Eric Nadelstern, an education department official under the Bloomberg administration, said the past program amounted to “micromanaging” low-performing schools, rather than overhauling them. He said that in the current administration were to group together low-performing schools it would conflict with its other strategy of partnering high-performing schools with others.

“Putting all your lowest-performing schools in the same jurisdiction is a terrible idea,” he said. “It’s like a remedial class for principals of schools.”

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.