What's the Plan?

As deadlines loom, city gives few hints about plans for struggling schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn is one of only two city schools to ever receive three straight F’s on its annual progress report.

The red-brick colossus known as Boys and Girls High School has stretched out over a block of Fulton Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn since the 1970s.

Now, the school looms over the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio and his schools chief, Carmen Fariña, who must decide how to handle a historic high school that has watched its enrollment dwindle from 2,300 to 750 students in the past five years while only graduating about four in 10 students each spring.

Boys and Girls is one of many troubled schools that the new administration has pledged to help fix rather than shutter, in a direct rebuke of the previous administration’s frequent close-and-replace approach to struggling schools.

But after six months on the job, Fariña has yet to announce how the department will prop up the city’s lowest-performing schools — a complicated question that could involve tackling thorny policies around the way schools are assigned students, how support networks oversee schools, and when floundering principals should be replaced.

As she crafts her plans, she faces a state-mandated deadline to launch overhauls at dozens of bottom-ranked schools by September. In the first signal of how she will try to balance support for those schools with interventions, city officials recently submitted a plan to the state to put Boys and Girls and another long-struggling school under special oversight — harkening back to an idea that Fariña and a top deputy endorsed two years ago.

Still, even at Boys and Girls, the details of the city’s intervention plans remain a mystery, said Principal Bernard Gassaway.

“It’s wait-and-see,” he said, adding that officials so far had simply promised more support. “It’s very important that the rhetoric is matched by action.”

As of this school year, 119 New York City schools rank among the bottom 5 percent in the state based on their state test scores and graduation rates, according to state officials. Each of those schools is required by next school year to begin carrying out an approved overhaul, which can include a redesign of teacher training and the school schedule, replacing its leader and possibly some staff, converting into a charter school, or shutting down.

The city has already received federal funds to overhaul 63 of the schools, a process that under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg often involved closing a school and replacing it with one or more new ones. That leaves the city with more than 50 city schools where it must enact overhaul plans by September. (That number will shrink this summer as some of the schools close, lose their struggling status, or receive federal improvement grants, the state officials said.)

Of those schools, two — Boys and Girls and Automotive High School in Williamsburg — have been bottom-ranked for at least five years without enacting an approved overhaul. The state calls those “out-of-time schools” and ordered districts to use one of six intensive interventions to improve them.

The city’s choice was to create an “alternate governance structure” for the two. This will involve putting them under the supervision of a single superintendent and could include granting the principals more leeway to hire and fire staff, providing more money for professional development, and lengthening their school days.

Bernard Gassaway, principal of the long-struggling Boys and Girls High School, said the new administration's approach to troubled schools so far has been "wait-and-see."
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Bernard Gassaway, principal of the long-struggling Boys and Girls High School, said the new administration’s approach to troubled schools so far has been “wait-and-see.”

The city could eventually include more schools in this oversight structure, though officials said only the two high schools will be part of it next year. Fariña has insisted that she would not create a special district just for struggling schools.

But a plan she endorsed two years ago when she was part of a “school transformation” working group with Phil Weinberg, a former principal who now oversees the education department’s accountability efforts, does resemble the city’s new efforts.

That group rejected the Bloomberg administration’s closure policy, and called instead for a “Success Initiative zone” where the leaders at up to 60 struggling schools would adopt improvement plans, receive “targeted support” to enact them, troubleshoot problems with other leaders in the zone, and visit successful schools. The idea was for the city to spur reforms inside floundering schools without being too prescriptive, which was one criticism of a district designed for troubled schools under former Chancellor Rudy Crew, said Jon Snyder, who was part of the working group with Fariña.

“I think that’s the balance that Carmen and the Department of Education will need to strike,” said Snyder, a former dean of the Bank Street College of Education. “It’s about growing capacity — it’s not about mandating particular practices.”

With the plan for Boys and Girls and Automotive high schools in place, the city still must settle on interventions for the dozens of other state-identified bottom-tier schools.

The new administration is unlikely to choose to close any of the schools for now. De Blasio said recently that closure will only become an option “if we feel, after applying all the tools we have in a reasonable timeframe, that we can’t fix the problem.” One approved overhaul the city might consider calls for a school’s “redesign,” but allows for the principal and faculty to stay in place if they are deemed competent.

Still, many questions remain about Fariña’s broader strategy for troubled schools, including those that are stumbling but have not yet attracted the state’s attention.

For example, Fariña has said little about how she will approach high schools or how she might reconfigure the school-support networks that some say allow low-performing schools to slip through the cracks. She has also not indicated whether she will adjust admission policies to prevent certain schools from enrolling a disproportionate number of students with special needs or who are behind academically — a problem cited by Gassaway and the working group Fariña was part of.

The education department did not make Fariña available for this article. A spokeswoman did not offer details about the city’s plan for its struggling schools, but said generally that it would work with each school to identify its needs, then craft school-specific plans to address its “underlying issues.”

In his campaign platform, de Blasio said his administration would collaborate with the leaders of struggling schools until they are “deemed to be a failure.” At that point, he proposed sending in different principals with experience improving schools along with a team of seasoned educators.

But it remains to be seen how Fariña will decide which principals to work with and which to replace. Thomas Hatch, co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching at Teachers College, said this is a challenge for every administration.

“For the most part,” he said, “we haven’t found the right balance between support and accountability.”

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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.