clashes in the space wars

Success Academy co-location exposes fault lines among de Blasio’s allies

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Success Academy parents testify at an April Panel for Educational Policy meeting.

The city’s controversial plan to place a charter school in a South Bronx building was narrowly approved Wednesday night, but not before drawing rare “nay” votes from two of the mayor’s own appointees to the city’s education policy board.

In an unusually divided 7-5 vote, the Panel for Educational Policy voted to move three grades of an expanding Success Academy elementary school into a building with three existing middle schools next year. The district schools are all a part of the city’s School Renewal turnaround program, and will have to give up space just as they begin to craft improvement plans — a scenario that appeared to test the patience of some of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s allies.

“I cannot in good conscience vote for a co-location of a charter school with three Renewal schools,” panelist Norm Fruchter said at the end of the meeting. “So I vote no.”

Elzora Cleveland, another mayoral appointee, also voted no.

The dissent is the latest illustration of how the panel’s dynamics have changed since the Bloomberg administration, when mayoral appointees voted in favor of the city’s proposals or were replaced before they could vote against them. (The mayor appoints eight of 13 members.)

The co-location debate also encapsulates a number of complicated problems the education department is facing: The need to support the schools in the Renewal program and its need to follow through on promises of space in public buildings to Success Academy; its desire for schools in shared buildings to work together and the three Bronx schools’ vehement protest of Success Academy’s arrival; and its need for space-sharing proposals to earn panel members’ approval while giving members the independence de Blasio has promised them.

Concerns about struggling schools facing co-locations aren’t new. At February’s panel meeting, in which three of eight co-location plans affected Renewal schools, Fruchter said he worried the space plans could undermine the city’s goal to provide the schools with extra resources like health clinics or additional counseling services. Chancellor Carmen Fariña said then that those worries were unwarranted, a message she repeated on Wednesday.

This time, Fruchter, a longtime education activist and policy analyst for the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, took his concerns a step further, breaking ranks for the first time since joining the panel 15 months ago.

“I try as best I can to support the chancellor because I think she’s doing a Herculean job in very difficult circumstance and she has terrific educational instincts,” Fruchter said.

Fruchter’s vote raised eyebrows among some of his colleagues, with one saying it would force some soul-searching as the city proposes more co-locations.

“For me, it was personally newsworthy and it made me think twice,” mayoral appointee Isaac Carmignani said. “It didn’t change my vote, but I respect Norm a lot. Norm has tons of experience, so that meant a lot.”

Four other co-locations were also approved at the meeting, including a contentious plan to co-locate a New Visions charter school with August Martin High School, also a Renewal school. Fruchter voted for that that proposal, which passed 7-3. Two members, including new mayoral appointee Ben Shuldiner, recused themselves.

The votes came after hours of charged testimony from parents, teachers, and students from several schools affected by the five co-locations being debated. More than 200 Success Academy Bronx 3 supporters, many donning orange shirts, packed into the middle seats of the auditorium of Pace High School in Chinatown, while a smaller group from J.H.S. 145, one of the other schools, huddled in the back.

Angel Cornejo, the mother of a Success Academy second grader, said she wanted the plan to be approved because she was concerned her son would otherwise have to return to a district school.

“He had a hard time the first couple of months. He was reading below level and struggling with math,” Cornejo said. “I was so confused because I was told by his teachers a local district school that he attended in kindergarten that he was right where he needed to be.”

Success Academy, which now operates 32 charter schools across the city, is the city’s top-performing charter network. But its strict discipline practices and intense academic focus, much of which is geared toward the state’s annual tests, as well as its high-profile lobbying efforts, have also attracted fierce criticism.

And while political tensions may have eased between Success Academy founder Eva Moskowitz and de Blasio since they faced off over school space last year, Wednesday night’s close vote shows that the network is still deeply divisive. Even panel members who voted for the proposal criticized what they called overly dramatic testimony from parents.

Jim Donohue, an English teacher at J.H.S. 145, testifies in opposition to a co-location plan involving Success Academy.
Jim Donohue, an English teacher at J.H.S. 145, testifies in opposition to a co-location plan involving Success Academy.

“Tonight’s comments confirmed to me that stakeholders at Success Academy are only concerned about themselves,” said panel member Vanessa Leung, a mayoral appointee.

Adding to the administration’s school-space headache is that Fariña and de Blasio are working to convince the state legislature that they should hold onto their control of the school system. The city’s mayoral control law expires at the end of June, and lawmakers have expressed concerns that the panel is too strongly connected to the mayor.

“We’re concerned about who gets appointed, how it gets appointed, how decisions get made,” said Walter Mosley, Jr., a Brooklyn Democrat and member of the Assembly education committee. “Right now, it feels as though nothing has changed.”

The building that the Success Academy school will enter next year has the capacity to serve more than 1,700 students, but is only currently serving about 920, according to the city’s (often disputed) estimates. As many as 120 third-grade students from Success will join them next year.

Success Academy will take over 14 full-size rooms next year, while the largest middle school in the building, J.H.S. 145, will give up nine of its 27 full-size rooms. Urban Science Academy will lose two of 20 rooms, and New Millennium Academy, the smallest school, will lose three of 15 rooms.

In response to concerns that the co-location would harm the city’s plans for its Renewal program, Fariña said her vision for the schools did not necessarily mean that they would require more space.

But Fariña’s comments did little to assuage some concerns.

Jim Donohue, who has taught English at J.H.S. 145 for the last 16 years, said taking away space sent mixed messages about his school’s future.

“What I find ironic and frustrating is that just as they’re saying, ‘You’re a Renewal school, you’re a school in need, here are resources,’” Donohue said. “On the other hand they’re saying, ‘Here’s an eviction notice.”

Correction: A previous version of this story said two members abstained from a vote on a co-location involving New Visions charter school, rather than recused themselves.

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.