Rudy Awakening

Chancellor's District architect says his school improvement model is "dead wrong"

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Former schools Chancellor Rudy Crew, second from right, expressed doubts about his old school-turnaround program on a recent panel.

The architect of the city’s “Chancellor’s District,” a school improvement initiative that flooded low-performing schools with resources over a decade ago, said Wednesday his much-debated approach was “dead wrong” and warned current officials not to repeat his mistakes.

From 1996 to 2003, New York City School Chancellor Rudy Crew grouped struggling schools into their own separate district and provided them with extra support, including new curriculum materials, more training, extra staff, and smaller class sizes. Union leaders have touted the program as an alternative to closing schools, but critics say more aggressive reforms are needed.

The initiative also shares similarities to the Renewal Schools program that Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Monday. The administration has distanced itself from those comparisons, but Crew said in an interview that they shared a lot in common.

“[De Blasio]’s changing the day, the year, the way teaching will be done,” Crew said in an interview. “We tried to do the same thing with the Chancellor’s District.”

Crew said those changes are important, but he offered a grim post-mortem 10 years after the district’s demise. Asked to assess the model on a panel on absenteeism at the New School on Thursday morning, he said the city school system wasn’t set up to fix persistently low-performing schools.

“When we did this in the Chancellor’s District, I think the framework is dead wrong,” said Crew. The structure, he said, was too one-size-fits-all.

“Everybody got the same memo, everybody got the same dollars, everybody got the same requirements and then you were sort of off to the races to do the best that you could with what you had,” Crew added.

While many details remain unclear, the de Blasio administration is asking schools to tailor their plans to meet students’ needs.

The $150 million plan will flood 94 of the city’s lowest-ranked schools with an array of social services and supports for students, a majority of whom are poor and many who live in homeless shelters, are part of the city’s child welfare system and come to school without getting basic needs met at home. Hoping to convert the schools into so-called community schools, each school is required to come up with its own plan, which also includes an extra hour of tutoring, summer programs and an increase in guidance counselors, health practitioners and adult literacy teachers. If schools don’t show progress in three years, de Blasio has said he’ll close them, though he hasn’t said how he will measure that progress.

Crew’s comments were delivered just a few feet from Deputy Mayor Richard Buery, who’s charged with making sure students who attend Renewal Schools benefit from the flood of services. Buery said the city’s initiative is uniquely challenging because each school will be have to create its own process for serving children and their families.

“Every school, every family, every child presents a unique set of challenges. And so the question, I think, at the school-level becomes, do you have an actual strategy and a structure, child by child?” Buery said.

After the event, Crew said the success of the city’s new approach will hinge on setting concrete goals and partnerships between schools and with outside organizations.

“What will be different is how they not just name it, but how they actually collaborate with these community agencies and how they come to agreement about what the targets, what the outcomes will be, for the expenditures they’ll be making,” Crew 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.