a new plan

It’s official: Networks dead, regional support to return, sups to exert more control at struggling schools

Updated — Networks are dead and regional support centers are back, Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced Thursday, in her biggest reversal of Bloomberg-era education policy yet.

The new structure eliminates the 55 networks that have provided operations and academic support to schools. In their place will be seven Borough Field Support Centers, which will be tasked with helping schools with instruction, operations, counseling, and supporting students with special needs. They centers will open this summer and the system will launch next school year.

But the centerpiece of the new structure will be superintendents, who will have six staff members, including family engagement officers and a “principal‎ leadership facilitator,” according to the city. That represents a major power reversal, since superintendents have had only a handful of helpers in recent years and served mainly to evaluate principals.

The changes will clarify lines of authority for schools and parents alike by putting superintendents back in charge of supporting and evaluating schools, Fariña said at a forum hosted by the Association for a Better New York.

“The central element of our new approach is creating clear accountability,” she said, “and giving superintendents the authority and resources they need to improve what happens in our schools and in our classrooms.”

Fariña was careful to note that most principals will keep control of their hiring and budgets, and credited the Bloomberg administration for giving principals needed autonomy.

A white paper also released by the city on Thursday said the pre-Bloomberg Board of Education and community school boards “were rife with patronage, inefficiency and ineffective bureaucracy. That is why this administration believes so strongly in the reforms of the last administration that put the schools under the control of the Mayor and Chancellor, and ultimately gave more independence to principals.”

But that independence often left struggling schools without enough guidance, Fariña said, adding that the city’s lowest performing schools will not retain that full authority. Instead, they will receive “customized direction and support” and will also be expected to use consistent teaching methods.

Fariña said a few of the nonprofit groups and universities that run existing networks will be allowed to continue supporting their schools, but they will now fall under the oversight of superintendents. She named a few of those groups — New Visions for Public Schools, the Urban Assembly, and CUNY — but not others, suggesting that some could lose their role helping to manage city schools. City officials later said that they are still in discussion with all of the groups, known as Partnership Support Organizations, about what role they will play in the new system.

It wasn’t immediately clear what the organizations, renamed “affinity groups,” will be held accountable for, what type of superintendent they would report to, and whether all of the PSOs would be interested in such a role, which would limit their influence.

The new structure marks the end of the decentralized structure that emerged after years of reshuffling and experimentation under the Bloomberg administration. The networks spanned multiple boroughs and typically worked with principals at about 25 schools each, a structure that earned mixed reviews over the years. Many principals said the ability to choose their network and work closely with like-minded colleagues was important.

The network system’s harshest critics pointed out that it left low-performing schools with too little oversight and parents without local officials to turn to, two problems Fariña said would be improved under the new system.

Superintendents have been gaining clout for months under Fariña, herself a former superintendent. After forcing them to reapply for their jobs this summer (more than a third were replaced), Fariña gave them new responsibility to interact with parents, promote arts education, ensure that quality teaching happens in schools — and told them to act as “the eyes and ears of the chancellor.”

Teachers, parents, principals, advocates: What do you think of the changes? Tell us in a one-minute survey.

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.