diversity of opinion

Council increases pressure on city to address school segregation

PHOTO: Mary Ellen McIntire
City Councilman Brad Lander at a parent forum on school diversity in June.

City lawmakers introduced a slate of legislation Wednesday meant to prod the administration to boost diversity in the city school system, which is among the most segregated in the country.

One resolution calls on the city to prioritize racial and ethnic diversity in its decision-making, while another urges state lawmakers to pass a bill amending the admission policy for the city’s most selective schools, which admit few black and Hispanic students. A bill would require the city to issue annual reports with demographic information about each school and district — including data about students’ race and family income — along with steps the city is taking to make schools more diverse.

The council must still hold a hearing and vote on the legislation, which would also require the city to release demographic data about accelerated programs and charter schools. But it’s unclear whether city officials are interested in wading into the jumble of zones, district rules, and citywide policies that together determine which students attend what schools.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has spoken broadly about the importance of diversity and said she was “disappointed” after a report this spring found New York state’s schools to be the most segregated in the country, with segregation in city schools on the rise. She also endorsed a state bill that would require eight of the city’s specialized schools to consider other measures beyond a student’s score on a test when making admissions decisions.

But she has not hinted at policy changes that would promote diversity across districts or across the entire school system. In May, Fariña told parents at a town-hall meeting that trying to increase diversity is “a school-by-school decision right now.”

“The scandal here is not that we’re failing; the scandal here is that we’re not even trying,” said Councilman Ritchie Torres, who sponsored the resolution calling on the administration to make diversity a top consideration when setting admissions guidelines, creating new schools or school zones, and other policies. He added that, based on Fariña’s actions to date, “It’s unclear whether this is high on her list.”

On Wednesday, Department of Education spokeswoman Devora Kaye said that the city recognizes “the critical value” of a diverse student body. “We are exploring additional ways to reflect this diversity in every zip code, and look forward to reviewing the package of legislation,” she said.

Under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Department of Education created a new high school admissions process that allows students to attend schools across the city. Over the years, the department pushed districtwide choice down to the middle-school level and even the elementary-school level in a few areas.

But most elementary-school students are still assigned to a single school based on where they live, complicating efforts to diversify schools in a city where many neighborhoods are not diverse at all. To change that, some advocates want the city to allow schools and districts to adopt “diversity-positive” admission policies like those in place at Brooklyn’s P.S. 133.

“The advocates have been a little disappointed in what we’ve heard” from Fariña on those issues, said David Tipson, the director of New York Appleseed, a group that promotes policies that foster school diversity. “We’re really pushing the DOE to exercise more leadership.”

The council has little authority over the school system, so its proposals could only push the education department to tackle school segregation.

Councilman Brad Lander, who introduced the reporting bill, said the administration has many options. He pointed to P.S. 133, which sets aside a portion of its seats for English-language learners and students from low-income families. The city could also increase the number of “education option” high schools that reserve slots for students at different academic levels, Lander noted.

“The problem is a big, massive problem, so I don’t have a silver bullet to create integrated schools in the near term,” he added. “What I think is that there are a lot of steps that we can take in that direction that we aren’t currently taking.”

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.