peace in the space wars

School space group offers path forward for de Blasio on co-locations

PHOTO: Jackie Schechter

Collaboration, transparency and students with disabilities are the themes of a long-awaited report from a diverse group of education experts convened to advise the de Blasio administration on how schools should share space.

The new report offers dozens of recommendations and strategies for how schools can better share space within a building. It calls for more public involvement during the planning period, suggests that schools in the same building share main offices or faculty work rooms, and says “bad neighbors” in a building should be monitored and arbiters dispatched to settle intractable disputes.

But the report is less a playbook for the de Blasio administration to use than a 13-page mission statement. And it warns that the “most urgent” school space issues — overcrowding and the presence of classroom trailers — have yet to be fully addressed. Requirements to provide facilities for new and expanding charter schools and plans to add 2,000 prekindergarten classrooms next year will further stretch the city’s capacity.

Co-locations incite some of the city’s fiercest education battles because they force schools to share auditoriums and cafeterias and divvy up the building’s classrooms and offices. Two of three city schools share space, but often the most contentious co-locations involve district and charter schools placed in the same building.

It is now the city’s decision whether to turn the group’s recommendations into system-wide regulations or simply guidelines that different schools in the same building are encouraged to follow. Even if the city does create new space-sharing rules, though, charter schools in public buildings will not necessarily be bound by them since they are exempt from most rules covering district schools.

“One of the big concerns is that charters aren’t technically obligated to follow” the recommendations, said Miriam Aristy-Farer, president of the community education council in Manhattan’s District 6 and a member of the advisory group that wrote the report, in an interview last month. “We could have all these great recommendations, but it’s up to them whether to follow them or not.”

The report suggests shorter and more concise explanations of how schools will be affected by changes, and make them available in more than just English and Spanish. It also asks that officials no longer sit silently and take notes at heated community meetings but instead respond to concerns directly.

Schools that share space should be given additional resources to coordinate schedules so that problems like extremely early and late lunch periods could be avoided, the report suggests. It also advises the city to provide examples of successful school schedules and continue to encourage schools to share Advanced Placement courses, foreign language programs, and joint extracurricular activities.

The report acknowledges that some co-location situations are more tense than others. It recommends the city create a system to monitor “high-risk co-locations” when one school is viewed as a “bad neighbor” because it resists collaboration or criticizes a school with which it shares space. When school leadership teams are unable to settle a dispute between themselves, the report also recommends that the city appoint an independent arbiter to resolve the impasses.

The report also suggests that the city should minimize changes that would uproot programs with students with severe special needs, an issue at the heart of a springtime scuffle over space at one of the schools where de Blasio nixed a space-sharing plan. Future plans should also set aside space specifically for mental health services, a nod to the de Blasio administration’s community schools initiative.

City Hall and the education department have already promised a number of reforms to the space-sharing process. Those included school walkthroughs by department officials when new co-locations are being considered, more public hearings before final co-location votes, and “campus squads” that will be dispatched to buildings with multiple schools to help resolve disputes.

The report’s release comes at a challenging moment for the de Blasio administration, which will have to quickly find space for at least four new charter schools as a result of new legislation. How the city handles that contentious process will be the first major test of the administration’s commitment to transparency and community involvement.

That law puts the city in bind: Many schools were already packed to the brim before de Blasio introduced his signature pre-kindergarten expansion and his plan to locate more service providers in schools, both of which absorb space. The new law says the city must find even more space in its cramped buildings for charter schools, or pay for more-expensive private locations.

“This law will have at least some, possibly significant, impact on space availability going forward,” Buery and Fariña wrote in their introduction to the new report.

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.