Health and Happiness

On community school tour, Fariña finds signs of success beyond test scores

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Chancellor Carmen Fariña on a tour of Manhattan's P.S. 5 with Principal Wanda Soto and Deputy Mayor Richard Buery.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña roamed the halls of P.S. 5 in Inwood Thursday morning, marveling at the suite of academic and support services it provides students and their families, just one day after the city announced that dozens of other schools will begin to offer such services next year.

Fariña smiled at children in an early-learning program as they lifted a colored parachute, and inspected artwork that students and their families created together during evening workshops. She stopped by a medical clinic where children receive asthma medication and immunization shots, and she chatted about literacy with parents who were meeting in the school, which offers adult education courses.

By extending its reach beyond the classroom with the help of a nonprofit partner, the school has drawn in parents and fostered healthier, happier students who show up for class at high rates, Fariña said after her tour. The city is hoping for similar outcomes at 40 schools that officials announced Wednesday will split a four-year, $52 million state grant to bring a similar range of support services and learning programs to their campuses.

The city is aiming to boost student attendance and reduce the number of dropouts at the schools that will add the services. While those shifts could in turn bolster students’ classroom performance, officials are not promising immediate academic gains.

“Are you going to get a one-year growth in reading scores immediately?” Fariña said Thursday. “Not necessarily.”

As P.S. 5, for instance, which has offered robust medical and other services for two decades, students score well below the citywide averages on state exams, records show. But Fariña said such measures cannot be the only yardstick for the success of schools with robust services, which are known as community schools.

“That’s why we have to look at something beyond the test scores,” she said. “These kids are in a happy place, a healthy place.”

Schools that struggle with high rates of student absenteeism can apply to receive the grant money, which will pay for a full-time coordinator at each school to bring in outside groups to provide services. Those services can include college-preparation classes, arts programs, tutoring, and physical and mental health services for students, as well as classes and other programs for families.

The city and the nonprofit Children’s Aid Society jointly founded P.S. 5 in 1993 to act as a community school. The school offers preschool classes, after-school and summer programs, and English-language courses for parents. About 90 percent of students make use of the school’s built-in health clinic with its full-time nurse, visiting physician and dentist, and regular vision and mental health screenings.

Wanda Soto, the school’s principal for the past 15 years, said all the supports lead students to view the school as a “safe haven” whose classes they are eager to attend. The school’s average attendance rate this year is 93 percent.

The school’s programs “give children poise, structure, responsibility,” Soto said.

Despite signs of student and parent investment in the school, many students have not performed well on the state’s annual standardized tests.

Last year, less than 10 percent of students passed the state English exams, compared to 26 percent of students citywide. In math, 16.4 percent of P.S. 5 students passed, compared to 30 percent across the city. The school’s scores were also far below the city averages in 2012 and 2011.

Soto pointed out that nearly half of the school’s students are still learning English, while less than 15 percent all students in the city school system are English-language learners. She added that classroom assessments and student-work portfolios show that students are making academic progress.

While the city will not judge the success of the community schools program based solely on student test scores, officials are still hoping to see students perform better in school as their attendance rates improve and their physical and mental health needs are addressed.

The United Way of New York City, which will help the city manage the program, will track students’ academic performance at the participating schools in addition to their attendance rates, according to United Way CEO Sheena Wright.

“There is an absolute, direct correlation between improving attendance and academic success in school,” Wright said. Still, she acknowledged that the state grant funding the program is focused on student attendance and is not directly aimed at enhancing teaching and learning at the schools.

“If you have bad instruction” at a school, Wright said, “you’re not going to improve your academic performance.”

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.