push back

At schools’ anti-Cuomo protests, thousands sing and shout

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Sarah Quinter, an artist and educator who graduated from City-As-School in 2004, speaks to demonstrators gathered at Washington Square Park to protest Gov. Cuomo’s proposed education policy changes.

Updated, 7 p.m. – Dozens of protests small and large broke out at schools across the city Thursday as teachers and parents pushed back against Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed education policy changes.

Chalkbeat spent time at three of Thursday’s rallies, where educators railed against the idea of 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. Meanwhile, Twitter and Facebook were buzzing throughout the day with photographs of students, parents and educators holding signs and locking hands throughout the city. (A spokeswoman for the city teachers union said they received photos from 300 schools.)

At Brooklyn’s P.S. 10, the protest was marked by big names and some musical flair.

P.S. 10 Principal Laura Scott leads students and parents in song to protest Cuomo's policies.
PHOTO: Sarah Darville
P.S. 10 Principal Laura Scott leads students and parents in song to protest Cuomo’s policies.

By 8 a.m., the block in front of the school was packed with parents, students, and teachers, many of whom had brought homemade signs. (One included Gov. Cuomo in a “Where’s Waldo” hat.) As parents gathered, Principal Laura Scott led a schoolwide singalong of “We Are the World” with new, anti-testing lyrics.

“We have kids to teach, stop emphasizing tests,” they sang. “It’s time we all unite and put children first.”

[Watch a video of the musical number]

They paused to listen to city teachers union President Michael Mulgrew and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who noted that she had lived in the neighborhood for almost 25 years.

Students and parents rally outside of District 15's P.S. 10 in Brooklyn.
Students and parents rally outside of District 15’s P.S. 10 in Brooklyn.

“This is what public education is,” Weingarten yelled into the crowd, as passing cars honked in support. “This is a school Cuomo should learn from, and be at.”

P.S. 10’s principal Scott and the school’s teachers have been critical of the outsized emphasis placed on state tests. At least one speaker noted that the school had such high parent turnout because most were not working multiple jobs and many had flexible schedules. They were there to speak for others, she said.

The rally at P.S. 2 in Chinatown against Gov. Cuomo’s education proposals began this frigid morning as Rachel Torres’ four children nibbled on donuts.

While they waited outside the entrance of the Henry Street school for more parents and teachers to arrive, Torres explained that the governor’s plan to weigh test scores more heavily in teacher evaluations would put even greater pressure on teachers to limit their lessons to tested material.

“I don’t think teaching to the test is right,” she said, a Dunkin’ Donuts box in one hand and a stroller handle in the other. “They should be teaching real-life things that mean something.”

P.S. 2 parents and students lined up along the metal fence outside the school Thursday morning.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
P.S. 2 parents and students lined up along the metal fence outside the school Thursday morning.

Just then, as if some secret tardy bell had sounded, parents and children appeared and lined up along the metal fence outside the school. Teachers trickled out of the building and handed out signs scrawled in English and Chinese characters. Before long, the line stretched the length of the building.

Catherine Holleran, the school librarian, noted that the state still owes the city billions of dollars from the settlement of a landmark school-funding lawsuit. At P.S. 2, the shortfall means that she had to raise $6,000 from private donors to update the library’s book collection, she said.

“This is what teachers have to do,” she added. “Cuomo is sitting on the money, and he won’t give it to us.”

Students, parents and educators formed a giant ring around the lot in the schoolyard at P.S. 2.
Students, parents and educators formed a giant ring around the lot in the schoolyard at P.S. 2.

Then the group — children toting bright backpacks, parents and teachers gripping coffee cups — marched down the block and around to the vast schoolyard behind the building. There they formed a giant ring of perhaps 200 bundled-up students and adults.

Parent Dorris Moreira-Douek said she joined the rally to push the state for more funding, since the school needs updated textbooks, computers, and Internet service — “the staples to run a classroom,” she said. But she also wanted to show her fourth-grade daughter that there is “politics in the day to day,” and that she must get involved.

“If you don’t ask for it,” she said, “you’re not going to get it.”

Just as suddenly as the rally started, it came to an end. Students rushed to class and parents headed to work — except for a few who lingered outside, peering into classroom windows to watch their children start the school day.

Alexandra Alves, a first-grade teacher whose students are all still learning English, said after the rally that it was a pivotal event for the school community.

After the rally, students rushed back into class and parents headed off to work.
After the rally, students rushed back into class and parents headed off to work.

Many P.S. 2 parents are Chinese immigrants unfamiliar with public protests and citizen activism, she said. At a recent parent meeting, teachers not only explained the debate over state education policy and funding, but also the whole idea of debating such things, she added.

“We talked about how in America we have freedom of speech,” Alves said, “and these are some of the things that citizens do to empower their communities and make positive changes.”

The teachers’ words seemed to sink in. Thursday’s rally was filled with parents who had rarely if ever participated in public protests, Alves said, but they had come to P.S. 2 to take that leap.

“It was a really big moment for the school,” she said.

After school let out Thursday afternoon, about 100 City-As-School students and educators marched from their Manhattan high school to Washington Square Park chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho, Cuomo’s plan has got to go,” and “stakes are high, test scores lie.”

Vincent Davi, the UFT representative for City-As-School, speaks outside of the Manhattan high school.
Vincent Davi, the UFT representative for City-As-School, speaks outside of the Manhattan high school.

Demonstrators from City-As-School – one of more than two-dozen city high schools with state permission to tie graduation to a student’s portfolio instead of Regents-exam scores – garnered attention from passersby as they marched through the West Village carrying banners and signs. Being escorted by close to 10 New York Police Department motorcycle officers and a handful of officers on foot, the group attracted even more listeners when it landed at Washington Square Park.

“We want to send a message to the governor that teachers are not the reason why education is not working,” said Vincent Davi, the school’s teachers union representative. “It is not the worker that should be blamed. We need support from Albany.”

City-As-School students and educators marched to Washington Square Park Thursday.
City-As-School students and educators marched to Washington Square Park Thursday.

City-As-School teacher Marcus McArthur said there would be negative repercussions from further tying teacher evaluations to student test scores. Students at the school, which is a member of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, still must pass the English language Regents exam to graduate.

“Tying their evaluations to the test scores, it’s going to destroy our relationship with our students,” McArthur said. “That has nothing to do with the work that we do and it’s going to lead to people not focusing on the students that really need help.”

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.