respect for all

LGBT students get support from Fariña, but more is needed, advocates say

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Chancellor Carmen Fariña spoke at an education panel Wednesday hosted by the Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City.

In the span of just a few months this year, the city’s schools became more welcoming places for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, advocates and lawmakers said Wednesday during a discussion hosted by an LGBT political club.

Since February, the city’s education department has issued guidelines to help schools support transgender students, the schools chancellor encouraged educators to discuss LGBT issues with students, and the state incorporated the gay rights movement into its history standards, speakers noted at the talk, which Chancellor Carmen Fariña and two other school officials attended.

But, they said, the city could still do much more to embrace all students.

Transgender students can still be restricted from using certain restrooms or playing competitive sports under the new guidelines. Bullying is still a major issue, yet many school staffers and students get little training on how to prevent it. And it is unclear if the city’s new social studies curriculum will incorporate gay history, they pointed out.

“We need to have a gay pride celebration in every school. We need to have a gay-straight alliance in every school,” said City Councilman Daniel Dromm, a former Queens elementary school teacher who made headlines years ago when he came out as gay. “I’m tired of waiting.”

Elayna Konstan, head of the education department’s Office of Safety and Youth Development, answered a question during the panel discussion.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Elayna Konstan, head of the education department’s Office of Safety and Youth Development, answered a question during the panel discussion.

Dromm, who chairs the council’s education committee, held a hearing on LGBT students in February that Fariña attended. Soon after, she sent principals a memo promoting classroom lessons designed to give students a chance “to gain insight on and sensitivity toward the experience of their LGBT peers.”

On Wednesday, she said she had recently had such a discussion with her eight-year-old grandson, who said he sympathized with a classmate who is “a girl that wishes she was a boy.”

“It’s really, really important that we have these conversations with our kids,” Fariña said. She said that the 200 new school guidance counselors hired this year could help facilitate those discussions.

Rose Christ, vice president of the Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City, which hosted the discussion, said the club did not know of any previous chancellor who had addressed “an LGBT organization or spoken at a public LGBT event” focused on schools.

“It’s historic that she was here tonight,” Dromm said about Fariña, who left after making her brief remarks. The officials in charge of school guidance counselors and student safety stayed and participated in the discussion.

The education department released its first-ever transgender student guidelines earlier this year.

They say that schools should allow students to dress in a way that matches their gender identity and should use students’ preferred name and pronoun, except on official records. The guidelines are less clear about which restrooms and locker rooms students may use, or whether they can participate in contact sports, saying that “the safety and comfort of all students” must be considered.

The policies represent a “tremendous step forward,” said panelist Michael Silverman, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund. But they could still be improved, he added. For instance, a transgender student who identifies as a boy but is not allowed to use the boys’ restroom “no longer feels like just another boy.”

Eunic Ortiz, president of the Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City, asks a question during the discussion.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Eunic Ortiz, president of the Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City, asks a question during the discussion.

While the state’s recently adopted social-studies standards cover gay history for the first time — meaning that high-school students could be tested on it — it is unclear whether the city’s soon-to-be-released history materials will include lessons on those events. Fariña did not resolve that question when asked Wednesday, saying only that she was open to discussing it further.

Since 2008, the city has required every school to designate an anti-bullying liaison and create an anti-bullying plan. Principals must train staff members on the city’s anti-discrimination policies, which prohibits mistreatment based on gender and sexuality, and students must receive at least one lesson on the discipline code, according to a department spokeswoman.

But Dromm and others noted during the discussion that the city does not require teachers to use its “Respect For All” lesson materials, and schools’ anti-bullying liaisons are the only staffers required to attend two-day trainings. Dromm added that when educators do talk about bullying with students, they sometimes leave LGBT issues out of the discussions.

The city does not record students’ gender identity or sexuality when documenting instances of school bullying or bias, making it difficult for advocates to spot trends, the panelists noted. Elayna Konstan, head of the department’s Office of Safety and Youth Development, said her office is still “exploring that with our lawyers.”

One panelist said the city should not ask students for that information, while others said the data is crucial for holding the city accountable for the safety of LGBT students.

“Our invisibility is our biggest enemy,” Dromm said.

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.