Priority Schools?

Classes have started, but some struggling schools still await clear guidance from the city

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Gassaway has attracted his share of critics, who say he has not done enough to improve the school during the five years he has led it.

The principal of Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn, one of the city’s lowest performing schools, emailed the schools chancellor the week before classes started asking to see the city’s intervention plan for his school. As of last week, he said, he still had not received a final version.

At another bottom-ranked school, the principal said he and his staff crafted their own school-improvement plan over the summer, but are still waiting for official feedback. He said city officials have not shared any plans of their own with the school, even though the state requires it to have a three-year turnaround strategy in place this year.

School-support network officials “told me to be patient, that the city has a plan for priority schools,” said the principal, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid retaliation. “That was in February or March. This is the end of September.”

More than two weeks into the school year, principals of some of the city’s most troubled schools say they still don’t know how exactly the city plans to intervene — and that the delays will make it harder for them to turn around their schools this year.

In fact, the state ordered such struggling schools to turn in improvement plans by July 31 and start acting on them by the start of the school year. But the city has so far only submitted “placeholder” plans created by the schools, and has asked for an extension until the end of October to submit the final versions, according to state officials.

The delays and limited release of information have prompted questions about whether Mayor Bill de Blasio and his schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, consider these schools a top priority and if they have a clear plan in place to turn them around.

“De Blasio and the chancellor knew coming in that this was a huge problem that they had all these schools that were struggling,” said Pedro Noguera, an education professor at New York University. “They put all their emphasis on preschool, but they don’t seem to get that they’re dealing with a much larger system.”

Gassaway said his school needs a well-thought-out improvement plan from the city, but "that’s the one thing that’s absent."
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Gassaway said his school needs a well-thought-out improvement plan from the city, but “that’s the one thing that’s absent.”

More than 90 schools in the city qualify as “priority schools,” a federal designation for the bottom 5 percent of schools in a state based on their test scores and graduation rates. Those schools must carry out “whole-school reforms” this year. Most of the schools have received federal grants to fund and guide those changes, but 29 that did not still need turnaround plans.

The whole-school reform calls for a performance review of the principal and teachers and the replacement of anyone deemed unsuccessful, more learning time for students, and a more rigorous academic program. Schools were supposed to describe those overhauls in their improvement plans, which the city asked for a three-month extension to submit.

Tom Dunn, a state education department spokesman, said the state and city are working together to make sure that next year the final plans are submitted and approved before the start of the school year.

Dunn added that schools usually craft the plans “under the direction and guidance of the district.” But the principal of the low-performing school that designed its own improvement plan this summer said it received almost no guidance.

The school’s leadership team filed an initial plan in June, then updated versions in August and last week, according to the principal. So far, the school has only received feedback on the budget portion of the plan, he said.

Meanwhile, the principal said he asked for extra money to hire a social worker, a math coach, and a reading specialist but got no response. Eventually, the school team gave up hope that they would get extra resources this year and designed their plan based on what was already available.

“We’re trying to rescue the school from priority status, so we can’t wait,” he said. “We’re trying to help ourselves.”

While those school-level plans are still being completed, the city has started to quietly roll out another intervention program for about two-dozen troubled schools. Some of the 29 schools that require whole-school overhauls are part of the program, which has been dubbed the “School Achievement Initiative,” while others are not.

Schools that are in the program have only been given basic information about it, according to principals. Meanwhile, new “school redesign” directors that are a key feature of the program only recently started visiting the schools to begin crafting customized improvement plans.

City officials briefed the leaders of the 23 schools in the program the week before school started. According to people who attended the meeting, the education department official overseeing the program gave a short PowerPoint presentation but said she couldn’t share copies of the slides with the principals until the mayor and chancellor publicly announce the program, which they have yet to do.

The program has “yet to be made transparent to schools,” one principal said, “let alone unveiled to the public.”

Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn is one of only two city schools to ever receive three straight F’s on its annual progress report.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn is one of only two city schools to ever receive three straight F’s on its annual progress report.

One of the schools in the program is Boys and Girls High School, a long-struggling institution in Bedford-Stuyvesant that is one of only two city schools to ever receive three straight F’s on its annual progress report. (The state considers it an “out-of-time” school because it has gone so long without enacting an approved overhaul, forcing the city to take even more drastic action there than at other struggling schools.)

So far the city has sent in two academic coaches and a former principal, who will act as the school’s redesign director, according to Bernard Gassaway, Boys and Girls’ principal. The school was also put under the oversight of a special superintendent who will monitor all the high schools in the intervention program.

The city also made the unusual decision not to send Boys and Girls any new students during the school year. Many critics, including Gassaway, have long said that struggling schools wind up with more of these “over-the-counter” students who often have greater needs than other students. It is unclear if other schools in the program will be granted a similar late-enrollment freeze — at least one other principal in the program said he had not been told.

Gassaway, who has opposed the city’s intervention plans for his school before, sent Fariña an email last month asking to see a final version of the school’s plan.

“BGHS is doomed to fail if we are expected to implement a plan in September 2014 that we have not seen since its first draft in July 2014,” he wrote on August 26. As of last week, he said he still had not received a copy of the final plan.

In an interview, Gassaway said the city’s delay would make it harder to improve the school.

For instance, he said he requested extra money in June to hire six new teachers with dual certifications in special education and other subjects. He said he only received that funding last month, after many teachers with those sought-after credentials had already been hired. By that time, he was only able to find two teachers with the dual certifications, he said.

“What would have helped this whole situation at Boys and Girls High School this year would have been a well-thought-out plan,” he said. “And that’s the one thing that’s absent.”

An education department spokeswoman said department officials started discussing a school-improvement plan with Gassaway and the school’s leadership team in the spring and continued to do so over the summer. The department has worked closely with Gassaway to identify and address the school’s needs, she added.

The city is taking a similar “proactive approach” with all of its struggling schools, developing tailored interventions for each one, said the spokeswoman, Devora Kaye.

“We are deeply committed to improving outcomes in all of our schools and ensuring that we meet the whole needs of each child and family,” she 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.