No Late Arrivals

To stabilize two struggling schools, city will not send them new students mid-year

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

The city will not send any latecomer students, who often pose extra challenges, to at least two long-struggling high schools this year, officials said. The shift marks an acknowledgement that some schools have been overburdened by students who arrive mid-year, and suggests that the city will consider adjusting enrollment policies as it tries to prop up troubled schools.

Late enrollees are often assigned to struggling schools with many unfilled (and often unwanted) seats, which can hasten a school’s decline as it strains to meet the needs of students who may have just arrived in the country or been released from jail.

The city has acknowledged the problem before and taken steps to direct fewer of these late arrivals — known as “over-the-counter” students — to low-performing schools. But observers said they had not heard of a complete freeze on latecomer placements at particular schools before.

The new strategy makes sense, advocates said, but they questioned how widely it could be implemented since latecomers have to be assigned somewhere.

“Clearly, you shouldn’t send over-the-counter students to struggling schools,” since it can derail both the student and the school, said Norm Fruchter, a senior policy analyst at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform. “But the question for the Department of Education is, systematically, where are you going to put these kids?”

Enrollment officers will not send students who enter the system after the normal high-school admissions process to two Brooklyn high schools this year, Boys and Girls and Automotive, according to city and state officials.

The city was forced to take drastic steps to improve those schools because they meet the state’s definition of “out of time” — they have been low-performing for several years without making progress and have failed to enact turnaround plans.

The city has also started to intervene at other struggling schools, including with the quiet rollout last month of an intensive coaching and oversight program for about two-dozen schools. But some principals of low-performing schools have said they have heard little from the city about how it plans to support them, whether by enrollment changes or other means.

There has long been concern that troubled schools wind up with more over-the-counter students than other schools, and that this can send those struggling schools over the edge.

For instance, about 20 percent of the students at large struggling high schools in 2011 were sent there outside of the normal enrollment process, compared to just 12 percent at better-performing schools, according to an Annenberg report last year. One large closing high school had 37 percent over-the-counter students in 2011, compared to the citywide average of 16 percent, the report found.

About 36,000 students per year do not go through the high-school admissions process but still need a seat, according to the Annenberg report. Students have different reasons for missing the enrollment process, but many of these latecomers are recent immigrants, have been previously incarcerated, or are homeless. Such students place high demands on any school, but especially ones that are already floundering.

State officials have warned the city about enrollment policies that saddle low-performing schools with disproportionate numbers of high-needs students, including those with disabilities, ones who are below grade level, and English language learners.

“I worry about the over-concentration of high-needs students in particular buildings without adequate supports to ensure success,” State Education Commissioner John King said in 2012.

Bernard Gassaway, the principal of Boys and Girls High School, said that the over-the-counter freeze could drive down his enrollment even further.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Bernard Gassaway, the principal of Boys and Girls High School, said that the over-the-counter freeze could drive down his enrollment even further.

To address the issue, the state required districts applying for federal school-improvement grants to show how they avoid clustering high-needs students in certain schools. In turn, the city began what it called “over-the-counter reform,” requiring every school to take more latecomers so that they are more evenly spread throughout the system.

But it is unclear if the city has ever spared a particular school from taking any late enrollees as a way to lessen its burden and help it improve. The Annenberg report recommended that as an improvement strategy for struggling schools, but Fruchter said he had never heard of it being done until now.

A city education department spokeswoman would not say whether this strategy had been used before or whether it would be applied to other schools. She only said it is intended as a “supportive intervention” for these two schools for this school year.

Even though advocates have called for an end to overburdening schools with high-needs students, they questioned how this sort of out-the-counter moratorium would work.

“I think it’s a great idea, but I don’t know where all these kids are going to go,” said Mary Conway-Spiegel, an advocate who has worked with closing schools.

She noted that higher-performing schools tend to get more applicants and so have fewer seats available for students who arrive after the regular admissions process. Some of those schools also try to limit the number of over-the-counter students they receive, she added.

The only citywide solution to this problem is to set up a “controlled-choice” admissions system, said Fruchter, who is an appointed member of the Panel for Educational Policy, a citywide school policymaking group. Students would still choose where to apply, but every high school would have to reserve a certain share of its seats for different student groups, such as over-the-counter students and those still learning English, he said.

A potential problem with this over-the-counter freeze is that it could drive down enrollment at already under-enrolled struggling schools, whose budgets are tied to their number of students. Bernard Gassaway, the principal of Boys and Girls High School, raised that concern in a letter to the schools chancellor, calling the plan “tantamount to phasing out BGHS.”

But the moratorium should actually help the schools, said Geraldine Maione, a former principal who helped turn around William Grady Career & Technical High School in Brooklyn. It will free the school leaders from having to devote attention to late-arriving students, she said, so they can focus on revamping their schools.

“Let’s see what happens,” she said. “Now that they’ll have more time and resources, that will be the test.”

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.