an open forum

Fariña: System overhaul will improve special-ed issues

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña

The coming school-system overhaul will improve special education services for students, Chancellor Carmen Fariña promised Monday night.

At a forum held by the New York Daily News and the faith-group coalition Metro-IAF, parents and educators presented Fariña with a number of harrowing stories. One parent said her signature had being forged on her child’s Individualized Education Program, the document laying out requirements for special services. Others talked about waiting months for a necessary evaluation or for a student to get access to a special service provider.

Fariña, flanked by her deputy in charge of special education, Corinne Rello-Anselmi, listened and acknowledged that she couldn’t fix the mistakes of the past. But the city’s new borough support centers will soon make it easier for schools and parents to escalate concerns, she said. In addition, the superintendents whom she has given new power and staff will be held accountable for the needs of special-education students, and each of their offices will have a parent liaison who will be asked to keep a log of concerns.

“We’re trying to make the system cleaner, clearer and more accountable,” Fariña said. Strong superintendents, she said later, are “what it’s all going to come down to.”

“You’re going to have a person to call,” Fariña said.

That overhaul has already begun, with superintendents of the city’s community school districts and groups of high schools getting more oversight power this year. The switch will fully flip this summer, as the school-support networks that have helped schools with things like instruction, budgeting, and special-education services are dismantled and their most of their staff members put into local support offices or placed under superintendents.

Fariña also faced tough questions from parents about the city’s struggling schools. Wendy Peters, the night’s first featured speaker, attended P.S. 305 in Bedford-Stuyvesant as a child, but declined to send her own child there in the late 1990s because of the school’s poor reputation. Now, she volunteers there as a tutor, but has seen little progress. No third graders there passed the state reading or math exams last year, Peters noted. (Of the school’s third through fifth graders, 14 percent met the state’s proficiency bar in math last year, while 11 percent did in reading.)

“Isn’t 16 years a reasonable amount of time for underperforming schools to receive the proper assistance they need or to be restructured and/or closed?” Peters asked.

The chancellor’s response hit familiar themes. For one, the superintendent in Brooklyn’s District 13 is working to offer teachers and principals extra support and training, Fariña said. Schools in the city’s Renewal turnaround program (which P.S. 305 is not a part of) are getting even more help, aided by the Renewal-focused staff member reporting to each superintendent.

“I’m not making excuses for what’s been decades of neglect, but I will say at many schools they didn’t have the right tools and they didn’t have the right supervision,” Fariña said.

“There’s no quick answer,” Fariña said, responding to a question about when parents should expect larger-scale improvements at the city’s Renewal schools. “I’m not telling you 16 years is not a long time to wait. Because it is, absolutely, without a doubt. However, I’ve been on the job a year and half, and you have to give me at least another year.”

Soon, struggling elementary schools will get extra help with phonics instruction, and second graders will take the Gates-Macginitie Reading Test to better assess their skills, Fariña said. Meanwhile, superintendents are closely scrutinizing school leadership, and 10 principals have recently been moved to other jobs.

The chancellor will participate in a second, similar forum on May 28.

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.