training day

Trips, a TED talk, and Renewal decisions await teachers on training day

Thursday is a day off for students, but it will be a busy one for schools, where staffs are getting their first opportunity since Election Day for a full day of training.

Since 2006, the first Thursday of June has been a mandatory training day for teachers, principals and staff members. This time, “Renewal” schools are meeting to decide what performance benchmarks they want to hit in the coming years, others are planning field trips across the city, and — at Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s urging — many others will check out a TED Talk about the importance of connections between teachers and students.

“It’s an incredibly moving talk that may just change the way you approach education,” Fariña wrote of the video to principals last month.

It’s also the first full professional development day since Fariña’s newly-empowered district superintendents have been firmly in place, and a few are exerting their new authority. At least two superintendents instructed their principals to send them an agenda for their training days, raising eyebrows among school leaders who said it was a small but significant example of lost autonomy.

“In my five years we have never been asked to have our PD plans vetted in advance,” a principal said. “It’s a brave new world.”

An elementary school principal who also had to submit an agenda said she was surprised, but then realized it’s to be expected now.

“The stated rationale for returning to a stronger district structure is so that there is both more oversight of and support for schools,” the principal wrote in an email. “This request seemed in keeping with that intention.”

Other principals said their superintendents are taking a hands-off approach as they tailor their trainings to their schools’ needs. Judy Touzin, principal of East New York Elementary School of Excellence, said she is sending her teachers of gifted and talented students to visit the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in an effort to “use different spaces across the city to support the learning in the classroom.” Other teachers are going to Teachers College for a training session on restorative discipline practices, while paraprofessionals will stay at the school for training on how to better serve students with disabilities.

The idea is “to focus on professional learning that’s most important and targeted” for all teachers, said Touzin, who took several of her teachers to a training session hosted by the Uncommon Schools charter-school network Wednesday.

The professional development day, called “Chancellor’s Conference Day,” grew out of the (now mostly apocryphal) city holiday of Brooklyn-Queens Day. Between 1829 and 2006, schools in the boroughs were closed to honor Sunday school teachers. The tradition faded over time and was changed altogether with the 2005 teachers contract, which extended the day off to students across the city but turned it into a professional development day for teachers.

The day can serve as a reflection of changes happening in the city’s schools, and gives teachers a chance to prepare for what’s ahead. In 2012, teachers were prepping for the rollout of the Common Core standards, and hiring committees at some “turnaround” schools that were headed for closure were meeting to discuss staffing. (A judge eventually blocked the closures.) But school workshops can also be more offbeat, in the past incorporating circus skills, hip-hop dance, or rugby.

This year, much of the day for teachers and principals of the city’s struggling Renewal schools will be spent working on an improvement plan that is due to the state later this month. Among the tasks will be for school leadership teams to come to a consensus about which performance benchmarks will be used to measure their progress over the next two years.

Fariña, who has made professional development a department priority, will be visiting a Queens middle school, although a spokeswoman did not provide the name. In the afternoon, she’ll go to the School for Global Leaders, a school in her collaboration program known as Learning Partners, for the program’s end-of-year celebration.

The chancellor said in her letter to principals last month that she wants schools to watch the TED Talk by the late Rita Pierson, and recommended at least 30 minutes of “deep conversation” about the passing school year. To end the year on a high note, principals she read from a book or praiseworthy letters, she offered.

“It’s important to end the day on an uplifting note,” she wrote. “Remind your staff that you are a community and that you are joined together by a shared mission to provide for your students’ success.”

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.