A New Challenge

For unaccompanied minors, the school year begins with uncertainty

PHOTO: Tasked Angel

Claire Sylvan first saw hints about how her New York City schools were about to change at a school more than 3,000 miles away.

Late last school year, she saw an uptick of unaccompanied minors enrolling at one of the west-coast schools in her Internationals Network for Public Schools. Then she began to see a higher number than usual in New York, where 15 of her network’s schools focus on serving immigrant students.

Of the flood of young migrants fleeing gang violence and extreme poverty in Central America — almost 40,000 came across the Mexican border between January and July, according to the Office of Refugee Settlement — more than 1,300 have ended up in New York City. As they wait for deportation hearings, the students, many with gaps in their formal education and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, are presenting a significant new challenge for city schools.

“They are going to be concentrated there, at schools,” Sylvan said, noting that the city is now tasked with figuring out how to provide those students with legal services, counseling, help learning English, and in some cases, literacy in any language. “How are you going to use the school as a hub for the services they are going to need?”

Brooklyn and the Bronx have received 362 and 347 students, respectively, and Manhattan has received 54 students. Queens has gotten the lion’s share of the children, with 578.

All have arrived in the U.S. alone or with other minors, and have been placed with family members, sponsors, or other care in the city. (Children as young as five years old have traveled with a one-year-old sibling, said one advocate with the New York Immigration Coalition. “It’s astounding.”)

The needs of many of these students are acute. At Flushing International High School in Queens, the staff began to prepare for the newest influx with a professional development session last week that covered how to identify symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

“We talked about the different ways trauma can show up in the classroom,” said Tania Romero, a social worker at Flushing, a school with experience enrolling unaccompanied minors, including those from conflict zones in Bosnia and parts of Africa. Staff members are on the lookout for students who might be quiet and depressed, or those who might act out with violence.

Some students may have experienced sexual trauma on their journey across the border, or may have spent weeks in the desert without much food or water, Romero said. Now, they also face uncertainty about whether they can stay in the U.S. or will be sent back to the place they fled.

But staff members are focused on understanding the symptoms of that trauma and some of what is happening in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. “Once you have that better understanding, you are more equipped to help those students,” Romero said.

In some ways, the city school system is well positioned to accommodate these students. About 14 percent of city students are English language learners, and nearly half of those were born outside the U.S.

Still, the new wave presents a bureaucratic challenge, since many will have no educational  records, said Margie McHugh, director of the National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy at the Migration Policy Institute.

And it’s still unclear how well districts and teachers nationwide will be able to meet the needs of these students, whose literacy levels — and socio-emotional needs — should be assessed when they enter their schools.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of rough edges to this right now,” she said.

The city has signaled that it is taking some steps to meet those needs. The newly appointed head of the office of English language learners, Milady Baez, will focus in part on monitoring the needs of these minors, the department said in a statement. The education department is also part of an interagency task force looking at their needs, though city officials from the mayor’s office and the education department declined to say what that group was working on. Sylvan also said she had spoken with Chancellor Carmen Fariña about sharing ideas from the Internationals network with the rest of the department.

Meanwhile, schools are continuing to see an influx of these high-need students.

“At a network level, we are certain we have well over 150 kids,” said Sylvan, citing a figure that includes children who arrived toward the end of last school year. “It goes up daily.”

Emma Sokoloff-Rubin contributed reporting.

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.