naomi smith

As the city pushes collaboration, demo schools fine-tune their tips

Christina Cordell, a director for the Showcase Schools program, works with Central Park East II Principal Naomi Smith, right, at conference on Tuesday.

Naomi Smith and her team at Central Park East II knew that their early-education methods worked. To demonstrate, they opened their doors to visitors from other schools last year, pointing out how time spent playing with blocks and Play-Doh helped the school’s youngest students learn and develop.

But there was one problem: Outsiders weren’t convinced.

“When people first came in, they were like, this is what your kids do all day?” said Smith, the school principal. “What is this?”

How to react to, and move past, that kind of disconnect was among the topics raised during a brainstorming session this week for New York City’s “Showcase Schools,” an initiative that debuted last October and required schools to offer tours to educators from other schools. City officials will announce Wednesday that the program is expanding to 27 schools, up from 20 — one of a number of growing collaboration programs that have become emblematic of Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s vision for improving the city school system.

Next year, about 220 schools will belong to one of four programs operated by the department’s Office of Interschool Collaborative Learning, representing roughly 14 percent of the school system. And workshops like the one held this week indicate that city officials are paying increasing attention to ensuring that the collaboration efforts are productive, as a few of those programs enter their second or third rounds this fall.

Disseminating good ideas through school visits is the central premise of three of the four programs. Schools in the Showcase program can draw visitors from any school who are interested in a specific concept the city has flagged as the school’s strength (Central Park East II’s is early education). In two versions of the city’s “Learning Partners” program, between three and eight schools form groups that visit each other’s schools.

The office is “growing in its reach because it speaks to the chancellor’s philosophy,” said Phil Weinberg, the deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, “which is rather than compete, we collaborate.”

The fourth program, the Middle School Quality Initiative, is one that Fariña inherited from the Bloomberg administration and is focused on helping schools improve literacy for middle-school students. That initiative, primarily designed for schools with large percentages of black and Hispanic students who qualify for lunch subsidies, is also set to expand from 87 to 108 schools, officials said.

While the middle school initiative is well-established, the Showcase schools, which began with 17 schools in October, belong to a program that is still developing, a process on display Tuesday. At dozens of small tables, discussions ebbed and flowed as principals and teachers imagined what visitors would want to get from tours at their schools.

“What will make visitors leave excited but not overwhelmed?” Milo Novelo, the department’s senior director Showcase Schools, asked the audience.

The schools were chosen for a wide range of strengths. P.S. 69 Vincent Grippo’s tours will focus on its arts curriculum, while Lower Manhattan Community Middle School was flagged for the way its teachers visit one another’s classrooms.

Three chronically struggling schools in the city’s school-turnaround program are also participating: P.S. 154 Jonathan D. Hyatt, J.H.S. 22 Jordan L. Mott, and P.S. 298 Dr. Betty Shabazz. Officials said they would be tasked with explaining their efforts to work with their local communities and how they have created a “sense of urgency” around improvement to other struggling schools.

At Central Park East II’s table, Smith and a colleague huddled with six others. The school was picked to showcase its “work time” period for pre-kindergarten through second grade, during which students work in different areas of a classroom that prompt students to paint, learn about class pets, or play with blocks, among other activities. The idea is to keep the activities unstructured and allow children to choose what they want to do, which Smith said leads to interactions students need as they acquire language.

“How would people know how to get that started?” asked Ellis Scope, an instructor at the Bank Street College of Education.

“I think showing that this can apply to all types of students, all different levels — which I know it does — I think that might be important,” said Patty Williams, a staff member in the office overseeing superintendents. “Because a visitor might say, well, this won’t fit the demographic of my school, this would never work at my school.”

As the meeting wrapped up, the educators returned to how they could avoid the confusion of Central Park East II’s first visits. Some suggested recording video of students talking about what they do during “work time” or providing case studies that illustrate how the format has worked for students with different learning needs.

Smith noted that the last tour she hosted was the best one. By then, she had started priming visitors by emailing them information about the model before the visit, then handing out a fact sheet when they arrived.

“By the last visit, we were like, this is so easy,” Smith said.

This article has been updated to include Milo Novelo’s title and the full name of the office that operates the Showcase Schools program.

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.