consolidated ed

Why city’s unions aren’t fighting Fariña’s school-merger plan

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Chancellor Carmen Fariña speaks with Monique Campbell, the principal of The School of Integrated Learning, one of the city schools that will begin absorbing a struggling middle school next year.

Peace Academy M.S. 596 has struggled for years. Led by a rotating cast of principals and facing dwindling enrollment, the Clinton Hill middle school was nearly closed by the Bloomberg administration in 2012.

This year, despite a name change and yet another new principals, it’s in even worse shape, enrolling just 12 sixth graders and prompting new questions about whether the school should continue in its current form.

“It would have been a miracle to save that school,” said David Goldsmith, president of the parent council that represents the District 13 school.

Now, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña — who oppose school closures except as a last resort — may be close to doing what their predecessors would not. Peace Academy could be folded into another school, Goldsmith said, part of a new consolidation strategy that would merge some struggling schools with another school nearby that is helmed by a top-notch principal.

Fariña’s broader plan, presented in two interviews last week, would share characteristics of the school closures that elicited outrage during the Bloomberg years: A struggling school would eventually lose its name, its principal, and cease to exist. But the teachers and principals unions, strong allies of de Blasio that sued to stop Bloomberg’s attempts to close schools, say they aren’t distressed by the possibility of mergers, in part because relatively few school staff members would be affected.

“There are going to be some cases where this absolutely makes sense,” Mark Cannizzaro, executive vice president for the union that represents principals and assistant principals, the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators. “Some schools are just too small to sustain themselves.”

The Bloomberg administration closed large schools, causing many teachers to lose their positions. Under a merger, teachers from both schools would be expected to remain at the consolidated school, city officials said, and they would not have to reapply for their jobs. Those provisions could make the plans palatable for the United Federation of Teachers.

“We are discussing the issues with DOE,” teachers-union spokesman Dick Riley said.

Teachers whose positions are cut will be assigned to different subjects or grades than they’ve previously taught, city officials said. If the combined school ends up with duplicated positions, the least experienced teachers from either school will lose their positions, in accordance with union rules, Riley said.

School leaders stand to be the most affected by the mergers, because consolidating administrations means there will be two principals for one spot and an excess of assistant principals. But Cannizzaro said he wasn’t concerned because Fariña’s plans were on a “very small scale right now.”

“I don’t think, at this point, that we’re anywhere close to discussing [mergers for] all under-enrolled schools,” Cannizzaro said.

Differences between the Bloomberg administration’s approach and what appears to be Fariña’s are calming other groups that opposed closures.

For one, the small schools that appear to be at risk lack the large alumni associations that sprung to the aid of some schools threatened by the Bloomberg administration. (An exception might be Boys and Girls High School, but it’s unclear whether that proposal — developed by the principal — is part of Fariña’s overarching plans.)

Tensions could still emerge once the city releases the name of the schools that could be consolidated, or when the appear before the Panel for Educational Policy. No schools will be fully consolidated until the start of the 2016-17 school year, although some changes could begin next year.

And while the Bloomberg administration’s strategy of phasing out closing schools one grade at a time was designed to minimize disruption, in reality, staff members often fled and students were encouraged to transfer out, leaving a hollowed-out school. The new plan would offer fewer incentives for staff and students to leave, potentially minimizing disruption for students and parents.

If the two schools are already sharing a building, the city would be able to promise parents that their children would stay with their classmates and maintain relationships with many of the adults at the school.

“The pluses for our people, students with disabilities, are that they’re allowing the schools to stay in the same building,” said Lori Podvesker, a special education advocate and member of the city’s Panel for Educational Policy.

The city’s move to draw attention to the consolidation plan also provides political benefits. De Blasio’s plan to improve 94 Renewal Schools got off to a slow start this year, and his approach has drawn criticism from those who favored Bloomberg’s more aggressive approach.

“This is a struggling school intervention strategy,” Department of Education spokeswoman Devora Kaye said in an email, noting that some schools that aren’t struggling will be merged, too.

That framing gives de Blasio another talking point as he tries to make his case to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature that they should renew mayoral control of the city school system and stay out of the city’s education policy affairs, though the plan has attracted attention from familiar critics.

“Masking the depth of failure by combining good schools with bad ones and diluting statistics is a move designed to shirk accountability and keep special interests satisfied,” Families for Excellent Schools CEO Jeremiah Kittredge said in a statement.

The mergers would also help solve a logistical problem that has emerged years after the city created hundreds of small schools that compete for student enrollment. Dozens of schools citywide, and nine Renewal Schools, enroll fewer than 150 students this year — eating up administrative resources in a system serving more than 1 million students.

Kaye said that merger plans are in the works for as many as a dozen schools, but the city has stayed mum on which schools will be involved. So far, the city has only confirmed that a merger is happening at two schools: M.S. 354 and M.S. 334, co-located middle schools in Crown Heights.

Goldsmith said that district officials are having “serious conversations” about a consolidation at Peace Academy, which like Boys and Girls and M.S. 334 are part of the de Blasio administration’s School Renewal turnaround program for struggling schools.

But school and District 13 officials are not eager to discuss those talks. Several options are still on the table for the tiny school, Kaye said, like changing its curriculum, revamping teacher training, or replacing the principal.

District 13 Superintendent Barbara Freeman did not respond to multiple requests for comment, and Principal Amy Rodriguez declined to comment — although her denial came through another principal.

“We are running our schools,” said James O’Brien, principal of the Brooklyn Community High School for Communication, Arts and Media, which shares a building with Peace Academy.

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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.