pre-prose

In wake of new union contract, 62 schools approved to 'break the rules'

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
City and teachers union officials on Monday announced the schools that were selected to join a school-experimentation program.

When Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city and the teachers union had agreed on a new contract two months ago, he promised that one provision would let schools “reinvent themselves.”

On Monday, city and union officials announced which schools will be able to do so by opting out of certain union rules and chancellor’s regulations, starting this September. Sixty-two schools were selected from 107 applicants to take part in the experimentation program, known as Progressive Redesign Opportunity Schools for Excellence.

The participating schools will be able to “break the rules,” as Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris put it, though the city offered few details about the dozens of plans for doing so that it approved in conjunction with the teachers union.

Particulars were provided for three of the schools, including the Community Health Academy of the Heights in Washington Heights, a neighborhood struggling with high obesity rates. The school wanted to incorporate lessons in the kitchen to teach students healthier eating and cooking habits, but was restricted from doing so because of rules related to the use of the kitchen, Principal Mark House said. Access to that space lets them experiment with ways to teach kids about health.

“This just makes sense,” House said.

Next year, the Academy, which teaches students in grades 6-12, will stagger class times so that older students begin school later than younger students. More than student learning, Chancellor Carmen Fariña said that change will help with teacher retention.

Debbie Mendez, a parent at the school and head of the PTA, agreed, recalling her own time as a teacher. Flexible schedules gives teachers “an opportunity to not burn out,” she said. “The amount of time and tolerance a teacher has [for students] is wonderful, but it gets challenging.”

Science teacher Amir Tusher, who has been at the school for eight years, said he is excited about changes to the school’s teacher evaluations. There will be an option for teachers to choose a specific skill to focus on, instead of having the principal sitting in the classroom and then deciding what skill the teacher should hone, he said.

In another proposal, the School of Integrated Learning, a middle school in Brooklyn, will mix large lecture classes with small classes for high-needs students. And Brooklyn International High School, where students are exempt from most Regents exams, has also developed a new teacher evaluation model that would include visits from peer teachers. The city did not explain what changes had been approved at the other 59 schools on Monday.

The scope of the changes has been the subject of debate since the contract was introduced, with some union members voicing concern about the implication that union contracts restrict innovation and that the program would weaken protections for teachers. Other union critics say the program won’t give enough freedom from contract rules for true experimentation.

“The lack of detail makes us wonder if this is just meant to distract us from the fact that the teachers’ contract puts too many restrictions on how schools are run,” Jenny Sedlis, executive director at StudentsFirst NY, said in a statement.

Without information on financial or other support for participating schools, there are also questions about how the schools will implement the changes.

The schools whose plans were announced Monday have already cleared two hurdles. The 62 schools met a tight deadline to develop their plans and have them approved by parent leaders after the contract was ratified. Once approved by the city and the union, 65 percent of a school’s unionized staff also approved the proposals.

The city and the union have said they plan to include 200 schools in the program over the next five years. The initial proposals, Fariña said, will “serve as a guide for all of our school communities.”

Participating schools:

Brooklyn
Brooklyn Democracy Academy
Brooklyn International High School
Brooklyn New School
Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies
East Brooklyn Community High School
Expeditionary Learning School for Community Leaders
Gotham Professional Arts Academy
Kurt Hahn Expeditionary Learning School
Lyons Community School
Mark Twain Intermediate
Olympus Academy High School
P.S. 188 – The Michael E. Berdy School
The International HS at Prospect Heights
The School of Integrated Learning

Bronx
Bronx Arena High School
Bronx Collaborative High School
Bronx Community High School
Bronx High School for Law and Community Service
Bronx Lab School
Bronx Park Middle School
Bronx Writing Academy
Community School for Social Justice
Comprehensive Model School Project
East Bronx Academy for the Future
English Language Learners and International Support Preparatory Academy
Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School
KAPPA International High School
Pan American International High School at Monroe
The Bronx Compass High School
The Highbridge Green School

Manhattan
Academy for Software Engineering
Beacon School
Castle Bridge School
Central Park East II
City as School High School
Community Health Academy of the Heights (CHAH)
East Side Community School
Essex Street Academy
Frank McCourt High School
Harvest Collegiate
Humanities Preparatory Academy
Innovation Diploma Plus HS
Institute for Collaborative Education
Manhattan International High School
NYC iSchool
P.S. 353 The Neighborhood School
Satellite Academy High School
The Earth School
The Ella Baker School
The Facing History School
The James Baldwin School
Urban Academy Laboratory High School
Vanguard High School
West Side Collaborative Middle School

Queens
Academy for Careers in Television and Film
International High School
Middle College High School at LaGuardia Community College
North Queens Community High School
P.S. 71 Forest Elementary
The Flushing International High School
The International High School for Health Sciences
Voyages Preparatory South Queens

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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.