Network Outage

To some principals, rise of superintendents signals decline of networks

Officially, principals are still awaiting word from the city about the future of “networks,” the Bloomberg-era support teams designed to help principals do everything from train teachers to manage budgets.

But to many, the writing is on the wall: Networks as they know them are finished.

Perhaps the clearest sign of this, according to several principals and network officials, is the resurgence of superintendents, the education department field commanders who were sidelined by the previous administration in an attempt to give principals greater autonomy. Under Chancellor Carmen Fariña, the superintendents have been rehired and retrained, and are now meeting individually with principals, weighing in on instructional matters, and hosting training sessions — activities that until now had been under the purview of networks.

Meanwhile, some school and network leaders say they have heard that networks could soon lose their role assisting schools with budget and operational issues, leaving them as little more than coaches, or “professional developers,” in school parlance. While Fariña is not slated to announce her new system for supporting schools until next month, she appeared to confirm some of the speculation about the networks’ diminishing authority in an interview Monday.

“I think the people in networks who are professional developers will be professional developers. We’re never going to lose that,” she told Chalkbeat. But she added that superintendents, whose main reason for visiting schools in recent years has been to rate principals, will now play a much greater part in guiding them.

“I think having the person who evaluates you be the person who supports you is very important, and that’s really what the superintendents will be doing,” she said.

The network system’s many critics, including some principals who find them ineffective, welcome the changes. But some who cherish their self-selected networks, which offer assistance to principals but can’t command or sanction them, dread the return to a superintendent-led system.

“A lot of us are nervous,” said one principal, who like other school and network leaders would only speak anonymously about possible policy changes. “The signs point to networks may no longer exist — certainly not in this form.”

After several reorganizations, the Bloomberg administration eventually settled on a system of nearly 60 support networks, which principals could choose from and that took over many of the duties once overseen by superintendents. The superintendents technically remained principals’ bosses, but their role was reduced mainly to conducting formal evaluations and their staffs shrank from dozens to a handful.

Under Fariña, herself a former superintendent, that position is regaining its clout.

After forcing them to reapply for their jobs this summer (more than a third were replaced), Fariña began to hold hour-long, one-on-one meetings with each of the more than 40 superintendents to explain their revamped roles. They were given new responsibilities — interact with parents, promote arts education, ensure that quality teaching happens in schools — and told to act as “the eyes and ears of the chancellor.”

“To me, the superintendents are huge,” Fariña said Monday. “Having people in the field that I can trust, that have my same belief system, that are going to be in schools all the time, is important.”

A summer teachers workshop organized by the school-support network, N403.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A summer teachers workshop organized by the school-support network, N403.

The superintendents have started to hire new staffers, including instructional experts to help evaluate the 60 or so schools that some superintendents oversee. They have also started to host district-wide meetings, which all but disappeared under the network system. While the meetings vary by superintendent, some principals have complained about ones held during the school day, where some say they have sat through talks by curriculum vendors and, in one case, Miss New York.

“I can’t speak enough to the lack of quality or purpose” at those meetings, one principal said.

Principals who value their networks worry that the rise of superintendents may signal the decline of networks.

To those principals, the network system empowered them to choose the type of support they wanted from experts who, unlike superintendents, would not also evaluate them. They also enabled school leaders in the same network to interact with like-minded colleagues outside their geographic districts. One principal in a high-needs Brooklyn district said she not only gets advice from her counterparts who lead successful schools in better-off districts, but also receives donated books and furniture from them.

“I’ve gotten an immense amount of support from other principals in my network,” the school leader said.

Predictably, some network officials are upset by the changes.

Some say that principals are now receiving dueling messages from networks and superintendents about how to run their schools, but that the school leaders feel compelled to defer to the will of their bosses, the superintendents. They also say that network staffers are starting to consider new jobs.

“There are a number of people on network teams who are being recruited to central jobs,” one network leader said, referring to positions within the city education department. “There are other people who are actively looking.”

Of course, the network system’s many critics — including some state officials and union leaders — have called for an overhaul since before Fariña was appointed.

They argue that some networks are spread too thin trying to assist schools in multiple boroughs, while others let struggling schools limp along without extra help. Others say the system leaves principals without clear supervisors and parents without officials they can appeal to.

Genevieve Stanislaus, principal of Life Sciences Secondary School in the Upper East Side, said the network system is “too scattered,” adding it can keep principals in the same neighborhood who are in different networks from collaborating. During her 34 years working in the school system, the most help she ever received was from her one-time superintendent, she said.

“He knew every one of his 41 schools, and his deputy visited even more often,” she said. “They were always there to support you and assist you.”

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.