changes at the top

Fariña to require more experienced superintendents who play stronger role in schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Current school superintendents will soon have to reapply for their jobs and undergo new training, while new applicants will need several extra years of school-based experience to be eligible for the role, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced Tuesday.

The city is reshaping the role of the 43 superintendents covered by the new regulations, whose main tasks today are to evaluate schools and principals. Now, they will be expected to provide more support to principals dealing with everything from the city’s prekindergarten expansion to students with special needs, even as they continue to evaluate them, senior Department of Education officials said on a conference call with reporters.

While Fariña has already replaced most of the education department’s senior leadership, the latest changes mark the beginning of a shakeup among administrators who deal directly with individual schools. But it continues her push to elevate veteran educators to leadership roles: She appointed longtime educators as her top deputies, and has insisted that would-be principals spend seven years in schools before they apply to become school leaders.

The role of superintendents was greatly diminished under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who transferred many of their responsibilities to school-support networks that principals entered voluntarily. Fariña has vowed not to upend the network system for now, but by shifting more support duties back to superintendents and potentially hiring some new ones, her administration will now have a greater hand in what happens inside schools.

“These changes serve our greatest goal of directly improving classroom learning for students across the city,” Fariña said in a statement.

New superintendent candidates will now need to have worked in schools for at least 10 years, with at least three of those as a principal, according to the proposed regulation changes that must be approved by an oversight board in August. In the past, would-be superintendents needed three years experience as a principal or to have held a high-level role within the education department.

Superintendents could now be expected to interact more with families and to help school leaders manage the added training time and other elements of the new teachers contract, officials said. They must also now attend community events and show a commitment to arts education.

The current crop of 32 district superintendents and nine high school superintendents will have to reapply for their positions, but they will not be held to the same 10-year-experience requirement as future candidates. Still, all but six of the 43 current superintendents already meet the new experience requirements, according to the city. (The superintendents who oversee special districts for older students and those with severe disabilities are not covered by the rule changes.)

The superintendents must pass through a new application process that is now online and will require essays and references, the city said. The officials said they expect to rehire “the vast majority” of the sitting superintendents.

The city will train the superintendents using a two-year, $750,000 grant from the Wallace Foundation, which was also a major funder of the New York City Leadership Academy, Bloomberg’s training program for new principals. Department officials said this would be the first time superintendents took part in a group training, something they said would lead to more uniformity across the school system.

Current and new superintendents, as well as potential candidates for the job, will receive three weeks of summer training followed by monthly workshops and individual coaching during the school year, according to a Wallace Foundation spokeswoman. As part of the grant, the city will also “re-write” superintendents’ job description, said the spokeswoman, Jessica Schwartz.

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.