push back

At widespread anti-Cuomo protests, parents and teachers to join hands

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Takiema Smith, a parent at the Brooklyn New School, opted her child out of state exams in 2014.

The seeds for the more than 80 protests that will break out at schools across the city Thursday were planted in January.

That’s when Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced he would link a potential boost in state education funding to a series of controversial policy changes, including tying teacher evaluations more closely to student test results, raising the charter-school cap, and placing consistently low-performing schools in the hands of outside groups. Before and after school Thursday, a number of advocacy groups — led largely by anti-testing advocates and later joined by the city teachers union — plan to join hands and form human chains around school buildings in what organizers say is a symbol of their displeasure with those ideas.

“That was the moment,” Danielle Boudet, an upstate education advocate and one of the organizers of the rallies, said of Cuomo’s announcement. “People were fighting from their own individual circles, but his agenda has galvanized all those groups.”

For the union, the rallies serves as another skirmish in the public-facing battle with Cuomo over evaluations, teacher tenure rules, and overall funding levels. City teachers union president Michael Mulgrew and his predecessor, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, will speak at the morning rally at Park Slope’s P.S. 10, which is known for its presence in the movement to opt out of state tests. The pair will also attend P.S. 200’s afternoon rally in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.

While the nearly 100 participating schools are largely concentrated in Brooklyn’s District 15, rallies will also be held at schools across the rest of that borough, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island, according to organizers.

Similar to recent forums focused on opting out of state testing, participating schools are concentrated in higher-performing districts, with some exceptions. More than half of the participating schools are in the city’s 10 highest performing districts on the state’s math or English exams.

Slightly less than one-third of the schools are either in the city’s lowest performing districts on state tests. Two of the participating schools are in the city’s Renewal program, and only one of the participating schools is in the Bronx.

The idea for the small, widespread protests featuring the camera-ready formations of parents and teachers “protecting” their schools started with smaller groups of parents.

Boudet serves on the steering committee of the New York State Allies for Public Education, a group whose members push back against the rising frequency of testing in schools. Shortly after Cuomo’s remarks in January, the group began to brainstorm ways to oppose the governor’s focus on standardized testing and pull in support from those concerned with other portions of his agenda. Class Size Matters Executive Director Leonie Haimson, who serves on the Allies steering committee with Boudet, brought the idea of the human chains to the United Federation of Teachers at a planning meeting in February.

The rallies are being organized before and after school hours, in a knock to the charter school sector’s rally last week for which schools bused hundreds of students to Albany, Haimson said.

“We can’t ask public schools to close,” Haimson said. “I thought the idea of protecting our schools would be a very good contrast to the charter schools.”

Cuomo’s proposal to increase the influence of student test scores in teacher evaluations has also angered some of the same parents who rallied against testing last year. The governor’s plan will invariably lead to teaching to the test, they said.

“A year ago or so things looked like they were moving in the opposite direction on testing,” said Dan Janzen, PTA president at P.S. 295 in Brooklyn. “Suddenly the plan comes out and things look like they are getting worse and they are going to continue getting worse.”

But even teachers who are mostly able to avoid state tests are planning to participate in Thursday’s events.

Hundreds of educators, advocates, and students are expected to participate in a Manhattan rally organized by City-As-School, which is one of more than two dozen city high schools that have state permission to tie graduation to a student’s portfolio of work instead of Regents exam scores.

Principal Alan Cheng said the planned march to Washington Square Park Thursday afternoon was organized by the school’s teachers as they became more aware of Gov. Cuomo’s proposed education overhaul, especially the changes that would make it more difficult for teachers to earn tenure.

“Teachers should be able to demonstrate their growth over time,” he said.

The rally is also meant to highlight the school’s membership in the New York Performance Standards Consortium, which allows students to complete in-depth projects to graduate instead of passing most of the required Regents exams.

“Our students, their experiences are truly shaped by being able to do that kind of work,” Cheng said. “But many students have not had the opportunity, and the state is making it even harder for other schools to consider these ideas.”

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.