a plan emerges

94 struggling schools will get extra support, but could still face closure

PHOTO: Twitter/NYC Mayor's Office
When Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled the Renewal program in November, he said the city would "move heaven and earth" to help the struggling schools improve. (Photo: Twitter/NYC Mayor's Office)

Faced with rising calls for a strategy to rescue the city’s struggling schools, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a $150 million plan on Monday to flood more than 90 of the city’s lowest-ranked schools with supports for students and staffers.

But in an effort to preempt critics who have accused his administration of giving failing schools a pass, de Blasio made clear that these 94 schools will face consequences if they do not meet certain targets. Even as he rebuked the previous administration for “casually” shuttering schools that were never given adequate assistance, de Balsio said the city will “close any schools that don’t measure up” after three years of intensive support.

“We will move heaven and earth to help them succeed,” de Blasio said during a speech Monday morning in an East Harlem high school, “but we will not wait forever.”

The new plan, dubbed “School Renewal,” turns the city into perhaps the nation’s most prominent test case of the theory that school improvement must extend beyond the classroom. Following the so-called community schools model, the city will bring physical and mental health practitioners, guidance counselors, adult literacy teachers, and a host of other service providers into these schools. They will also add an extra hour of tutoring to the school day and receive money for new after-school seats, summer programs, and more additional teacher training.

The plan also highlights de Blasio’s sharp departure from former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s reliance on competition and consequences to spur school improvement.

De Blasio allies who had opposed his predecessor’s approach embraced the new tact. Some 70 lawmakers, union and business leaders, and advocates offered their endorsements of the plan in a release sent out by City Hall on Monday.

But critics of the administration pounced on the plan, attacking it as limited and weak. They noted that it leaves out many low-performing schools, it does not specify the exact targets schools must meet, and puts off the most serious sanctions for several years.

“The mayor’s plan is too small, too slow, and too timid,” said Jeremiah Kittredge, CEO of Families for Excellent Schools, a pro-charter school advocacy group that has been critical of de Blasio’s education policies.

State education department officials apparently shared some of those concerns: A spokesman said Monday that Commissioner John King may force the city to “take additional actions in these schools” next year if he decides they are not making enough progress.

“There are times when struggling schools need significant structural change in order for meaningful progress to occur,” said the spokesman, Dennis Tompkins.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña forcefully defended the plan and the administration’s shift towards collaboration and support, telling reporters Monday that if her predecessors’ more aggressive approach had worked, “I wouldn’t be sitting here now talking about how we’re going to turn the schools around.”

“We want to prove the skeptics wrong,” she added.

Click for more information on the Renewal Schools

The announcement comes 10 months into de Blasio’s term and well into the school year, after educators and advocates have for months urged the city to outline a clear plan for the city’s many low-performing schools. Some educators have said the delay will make it harder to enact major changes this year, and the principal of one long-struggling school who recently resigned said he had lost faith in the city to help his school.

The city was required to submit improvement plans to the state for roughly 250 low-ranked schools this summer, but officials asked for a months-long extension to file final versions. The state gave the city until this Friday to turn them in. However, over the weekend, the city asked for another extension through the end of the year, which the state is currently considering, according to Tompkins.

Even as officials finalize those plans, the city will start to enact parts of the new turnaround program, de Blasio said. Fariña is currently evaluating the principals of the targeted schools, and their teachers will soon get new training. The schools will be sent new guidance counselors this spring, he added.

Other key components will launch later. For example, the schools will not offer the extra support services for students and their families until next year, when they will be sent teams of seasoned principals and teachers to act as coaches.

As the program rolls out over time, schools will be expected to meet certain goals. The only requirement this year is for schools to create individual improvement plans by the spring. Next year, they must hit various targets, including higher attendance, and by 2017 they must show growth in students’ academic performance. Officials said the goals will vary by school, and will take into account student test scores, educators’ efforts to work with families, and the quality of teacher training, among other measures.

Principals hoping to revamp their schools’ academics by removing poor-performing teachers will have to go through the normal evaluation and hearing process, officials said. To ease that process, superintendents will make sure principals properly document instances of teacher misconduct and incompetence, they added.

The 94 schools include some the state has identified as poor performing, and all rank among the bottom quarter in the city as measured by test scores and graduation rates.

The $150 million covers the first two years of the program, and comes from state struggling-school funds and money freed up through cost-savings in the education department budget, officials said. Funding has not yet been secured for the program’s third year, the officials added. De Blasio said more state money is needed to turn around more schools.

“We will need Albany to step up and help us,” he said.

The city’s plan encompasses the School Achievement Initiative, which sent coaches into 23 of the city’s lowest-performing schools this year. It is separate from the $52 million de Blasio set aside earlier this year to create 40 community schools, officials said.

Making community schools the centerpiece of the city’s vision for improving the system is likely to resurface debates about the effectiveness of non-academic services at boosting student achievement. (De Blasio has visited Cincinnati to observe their community schools model, though many of its schools are still struggling to improve their academic performance.)

De Blasio’s school-improvement plan also evokes the Chancellor’s District, a support program in the late 90s and early 2000s for the city’s lowest-ranked schools, though officials said the new program will tailor supports to each school’s needs. Schools in the Chancellor’s District made short-term gains in fourth-grade reading scores but no changes in eighth-grade scores.

The Coalition School for Social Change, where de Blasio made his speech Monday, will be part of the new program. Principal John Sullivan said he hopes to use the new resources to add more social workers, medical and dental services, and help for students who are behind in credits.

“I think the plan will mean a tremendous amount of support for my school community,” he said.

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.