waiting game

Dispute over grants for longer school days leaves schools in limbo

Plans to lengthen the school day at eight low-income middle schools are now hanging in the balance because of a squabble between city and state officials.

With a little more than four weeks before the school year starts, the schools counting on nearly $8 million in “extended learning time” grants have been told the money is in danger of being withheld because the city’s application didn’t comply with state contracting rules.

The city was one of 25 districts across the state that applied in October to lengthen the year at low-income schools by 25 percent, and was awarded $7.6 million last month.

Many of the city schools set to receive the funds, such as M.S. 223 in the Bronx and I.S. 340 in Brooklyn, lengthened the day for sixth graders last year by two and a half hours as part of a pilot with the city’s Middle School Quality Initiative and were planning to expand those programs. Another school, I.S. 77 in Queens, wasn’t part of the MSQI pilot, but had extended its day for some students by 40 minutes in the morning.

The uncertainty has frustrated officials who hoped that by now they would have been able to start planning for longer days when the school year begins Sept. 4.

“This is a great opportunity for a huge amount of funding, and it’s going to be hard to try to do this in two weeks in August,” said an official from a school set to receive some of the funds.

The funding hold-up is the latest in a string of issues that has plagued Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s touted competitive education grants. Cuomo first floated extended learning time in a speech 19 months ago that laid out his 2013 budget priorities for the year.

Capital New York reported last week that just two winning districts statewide had concrete plans for implementing extended learning time models in their schools, while two other districts were considering dropping out entirely, citing the limited time they had to implement the programs.

With the school year a month away, city schools are still eager to get started, said Chris Caruso, vice president at The After School Corporation, one of three nonprofits picked by the city to help implement the grants this year.

“I know that the schools are anxious and from what I hear there continues to be optimism that this will get resolved,” Caruso said.

City education officials said the hang-up was because of a disagreement over a state law that’s meant to ensure that minority or woman-owned businesses are given an equal opportunity in state-funded contracts or grants. The city says the law doesn’t apply to the department in this case and is seeking a waiver, while officials for Cuomo have insisted that any applications for state-funded grants must comply.

“In other words, the State selected us as a district grant recipient even though the proposal as submitted did not meet the expectations required,” Christina Fuentes, who directs the city’s Middle School Quality Initiative, wrote in an email to principals and nonprofits who were part of the application on Tuesday.

Fuentes said the department was ready to start a fight over the matter.

“We are currently working with our legal department and aligning our interests with political entities to try to get over this impasse,” Fuentes wrote.

Representatives for both the governor’s office and the State Education Department refuted Fuentes’ concerns and said the city’s grant was not being withheld. They would not confirm if the city’s application complied with state procurement laws and said the money had not been disbursed yet because the grant process wasn’t complete.

After Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the email and followed up with questions to the city department’s press office, a spokeswoman downplayed any disagreement and said the issue was headed toward an amicable settlement.  She said that the city was working with the governor’s office to comply with the state’s Minority/Woman-owned Business Enterprise law.

“The DOE is finalizing a robust [Minority and Women Business Enterprises] plan, and we are working towards fuller MWBE participation in the coming year to ensure we receive this critical funding,” said the spokeswoman, Devora Kaye. “We are examining ways we can support schools and programs this upcoming year, in case there is a delay in funding.”

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.