protest movement

Advocates pushing city on struggling schools choose an unlikely champion

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Tenicka Boyd, an organizer for StudentsFirstNY, spoke at a rally outside Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn.

The city’s delay in publicizing plans for its struggling schools has made strange bedfellows of an advocacy group that supports school closures and a principal who for years resisted his own school’s potential shuttering.

Families organized by StudentsFirstNY rallied outside the long-struggling Boys and Girls High School on Monday, calling on the mayor to announce a clear improvement plan for the school. It was the latest effort by StudentsFirstNY, a group that advocates for charter schools and school choice, to pressure city officials to more quickly articulate a comprehensive plan for the city’s lowest-performing schools.

Principal Bernard Gassaway made the same point when he announced his resignation late last week, blasting the city for offering incomplete plans that were “doomed to fail.” Boys and Girls, which received an “F” letter grade from the city three years in a row, has long struggled to raise test scores and graduation rates. And though Gassaway didn’t attend Monday’s rally, when schools were closed, he indicated that he didn’t mind staying involved.

“I have no problem being used for any just cause,” Gassaway said in an email. “The fact is: There is no comprehensive, strategic plan. I support all efforts to right the wrongs of this and any administration.”

Over the last few months, critics of the de Blasio administration’s education policies have shifted their focus to struggling district schools. Improvement plans for the city’s lowest-performing schools were due July 31, but the city asked for and received an extension to file those plans until next month. Thousands of families and advocates organized by the pro-charter Families for Excellent Schools pressed the mayor for a struggling-schools plan at a rally in lower Manhattan earlier this month.

But Gassaway is an unconventional choice of a champion for StudentsFirst and Families for Excellent Schools — an advocacy group which referred to the principal as a “widely respected educator” in a press release on Monday. Gassaway criticized the Bloomberg administration even as Boys and Girls avoided closure in recent years as the school’s reputation and enrollment declined during his five-year tenure. StudentsFirst and Families for Excellent Schools support closing low-performing schools.

City and state officials said last month they would not send students to Boys and Girls mid-year, and that a more detailed plan is forthcoming. Education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye said this week that Gassaway’s departure could benefit the school.

“Boys and Girls High School was moving in the wrong direction, and it was always the DOE’s intention to find a stronger leader for this school,” Kaye said Monday. Officials said the department is moving to install an interim principal.

Meanwhile, StudentsFirstNY’s director Jenny Sedlis said if the group did not see a quick response from the city, it would begin planning future rallies.

“Here we are with no principal, no leadership from City Hall, and no plan on what we’re going to do next,” said Darlene Boston, a mother of two sons who both dropped out of Boys and Girls. They were part of a class-action suit filed against the city in 2005 that charged the school with warehousing disruptive students in the school’s auditorium until they dropped out.

Howard Pressley, a senior at Boys and Girls who attended the protest with his father, said he is on track to graduate and plays on the basketball team. “A lot of people get the wrong idea about the school,” he said. “I feel like it’s a family.”

The school does have significant issues, he acknowledged. “A lot of kids barely come to school, maybe two days a week,” he said.

Patrick Wall 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.