after hours

With two weeks until expanded after-school launch, de Blasio emphasizes the stakes

PHOTO: Emma Sokoloff-Rubin
Mayor Bill de Blasio addresses new after-school staff.

Mayor Bill de Blasio knows what will happen if middle schoolers don’t find after-school programs worthwhile. They’ll vote with their feet, and stop showing up.

The mayor issued this friendly warning to new after-school employees on Monday. The group was smaller and quieter than the crowd of pre-K teachers he rallied last week, but the message was the same: We’re counting on you.

“It’s my job to get you the support, but then you go in. You’re the boots on the ground,” de Blasio said, after recapping his efforts to secure funding for the largest expansion of after-school offerings in the city’s history.

The 130 teachers and site directors gathered at the Boys and Girls Club of Metro Queens this week are all new employees of the Sports & Arts in Schools Foundation, one of 108 organizations receiving city funds to oversee after-school programming in middle schools when classes begin next week.

Alongside expanded pre-K offerings, de Blasio positioned after-school programs as a centerpiece of his mayoral campaign and then his efforts as mayor to improve the city’s education system. While the push for after-school expansion has not been as high-profile as the battle to fund and prepare thousands of new full-day seats in pre-K, de Blasio made clear today that expectations for the after-school rollout are still high.

“Many of the things we’ll bringing into the schools in the coming weeks will create a new kind of school system, a new kind of young people,” he said, citing middle school after-school programming (newly renamed School’s Out NYC, or SONYC), pre-K, and his administration’s investment in community schools.

The city is putting $145 million in state funding toward SONYC this year. That number will jump to $190 million during the 2015-16 school year, and the city’s goal is to offer all sixth, seventh, and eighth graders access to after-school programming at schools or community-based organizations by the end of the two years.

De Blasio estimated that the number of students served this school year will nearly double, from 50,000 to 100,000. The number of middle schools that offer after-school programs will jump from 231 to 562.

As the start of the school year approaches, site directors are still making decisions that are likely to determine whether they can convince middle schoolers to enroll and then stick around.

Rising ninth-grader Brandon Joseph, who spoke on a student panel before de Blasio arrived, is one of the 50,000 students who already has a sense of how those decisions influence their experiences after school.

When one of the new site directors asked Joseph and five other after-school veterans whether students should have a say in how they spend the extra time, Joseph, who attended P.S. 42 in Queens, immediately spoke up in favor of choice.

“It helps us be independent. That’s what we learn by choosing what we want,” he said.

“It should be a mix,” Cordelia King, who attended I.S. 285, chimed in. “If there’s too much freedom, it can be out of control.”

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.