open house

District leaders look under the hood of a Success Academy

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
School leaders from charter and district schools visited Success Academy Harlem 5 on Thursday.

At Success Academy Harlem 5, students were under a microscope on Thursday — though that wasn’t out of the ordinary for its elementary schoolers.

In most of the school’s classrooms, clipboard-toting assistants make sure students stay on task. Standing off to the side as students work, they praise and critique at a near-constant clip.

“Put the text flat on your lap,” one assistant told a student in a reading class on Thursday, taking notes. “That’s a check.”

The practice, known as “narrating,” is one of the many ways that the Success Academy school works to keep students focused during the school day. The meticulous attention paid to the details of student and teachers’ behavior — alternately credited with the network’s high test scores and derided as too regimented — was on display for 20 principals and administrators who attended a tour and training session hosted by Success, the city’s largest charter school network.

Some were from district schools, and the public invitation was seen as a gesture toward greater collaboration from Success and also as a chance to score some political points. Success schools have a history of clashing with district schools with which they share city-owned buildings, and Mayor Bill de Blasio and his allies have criticized charter schools for not serving their fair share of high-need students. City officials have repeatedly said that charter schools need to open their doors and do more to share best practices.

“Keeping in mind that charter schools’ original purpose was to share innovative practices, we also need them to come to the table and tell us what they’re doing,” schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said this week.

But most of the morning in Harlem felt comfortably distant from the political maelstrom that can seem permanently attached to Success Academy and its founder Eva Moskowitz, who has waged a public battle with de Blasio over his ambivalence over charter schools.

School leaders from 41 charter schools and 22 district schools signed up to visit one of two Success schools that were part of the tours, a spokesperson said. They came from the city’s other large charter networks, like Uncommon, KIPP and Achievement First, and from as far away as Albany. The group even included the principal of a district school that shares space with a Success Academy in the Bronx.

“We get along,” said the principal, who despite her friendly relationship with Success asked that her name not be used. “But it’s good to come and see if somebody is doing [something] different.”

Michaela Daniel, a top education policy adviser to Deputy Mayor Richard Buery and who formerly served as director of operations of an Uncommon charter school, also attended.

The visitors probed all aspects of the growing elementary school,where 97 percent of 165 third- and fourth- graders earned a proficient score in on the state math exams and 68 percent earned a proficient English score last year, when city averages were 34 percent in math and 29 percent in English. Of last year’s test-takers, 92 students were third-graders and 73 were in fourth grade.

Principal Khari Shabazz, right. is an active participant in lessons when he's observing teachers at Success Academy Harlem 5.
PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Principal Khari Shabazz, right. is an active participant in lessons when he’s observing teachers at Success Academy Harlem 5.

In focus was Success’ feedback-obsessed culture, in which someone was frequently assisting the assistants. On Thursday morning, assistant principal Lavinia Mackall stepped in to tell the rookie teacher taking notes in the reading class that he was narrating a bit too loudly.

“I noticed that he was speaking in a tone that was almost as loud as the instruction that was going on,” Mackall recalled after.

During a guided reading portion of another English class, Principal Khari Shabazz interrupted and asked a teacher to repeat her instructions to make her directive more “kid-centered” before the class turned to work.

She had initially begun by saying, “‘When I am reading, I am going to be thinking about,’” Shabazz said. “So I told her just to rephrase and make sure that they are part of that conversation.”

What made that kind of interaction possible without disrupting the lesson, Shabazz and teachers said, was the school’s rigid structure. Classes are meticulously planned, and teachers huddle beforehand to consider how students might get stuck.

The real-time feedback caught the visitors’ attention.

“I usually sit back  and let the teacher go through the lesson and then we conversate after,” said Lynn Staton, who has served as the principal of P.S. 36 in southeastern Queens for nine years. “But I do see the value of standing next to the teacher and moving along with them.”

Also on display was the school’s approach to discipline, something for which Success schools have been criticized. If a student tallies up enough checks on the assistant teacher’s clipboard, he or she must spend time away from the class. One student, who a teacher said had refused to complete a worksheet, was told to remain seated at his desk in the back of the classroom as his peers moved to a work on a rug at the front of the room.

Discipline on display: A student in a Success Academy Harlem 5 classroom was told to stay seated while the rest of the class worked out a math problem on the rug.
PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Discipline on display: A student was told to stay seated while the rest of his classmates moved to the rug to work on a math problem on the rug.

Most of the school leaders said they were impressed with the back and forth between Shabazz, Mackall, and their teachers, though others questioned whether the students they saw were overly restrained. Several requested access to the school’s schedule and curriculum in order to apply some parts of the Success model to their own schools.

Shabazz ended the morning session with a statement that underscored what stokes the interest in, and controversy around, Success Academy’s schools. Asked about his school’s test scores, Shabazz quickly pointed out that his students outperformed their peers down the hall.

“No disrespect,” Shabazz said, “but just to give you a sense of the school that I share space with, I don’t think more than 3 percent of those kids passed.”

In fact, 4 percent of P.S. 123’s students earned proficient scores in math, and 8 percent earned proficient English scores last year. But to Shabazz, the details were less important than the gap between the two schools’ performance.

“I think it’s important to think about when you talk about what is really possible,” he said.

Success Academy Principal Khari Shabazz’s coaches teachers in real time from Chalkbeat New York on Vimeo.

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.