summer reading

Hoping to reduce summer learning loss, city turns to iPads loaded with books

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Chancellor Carmen Fariña spoke with Emolior Academy Principal Derick Spaulding during the kickoff of SummerSail in 2014.

Sarita Parrales didn’t read at all last summer. And when it came time to start seventh grade, she remembered having to scramble.

“I felt like I was behind the whole class,” said Parrales, who will enter eighth grade at Emolior Academy, a public middle school in the South Bronx, this fall. “Then around like December or November, I was starting to catch up.”

Parrales described the setback this week at a Union Square bookstore, where she declared that this summer had been different: she had read a book from the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, the childhood memoir of the writer Walter Dean Myers, and four others.

The difference this summer was a growing pilot program that sends New York City students home for the summer with iPads loaded with a digital library and software that tracks their reading. The program, now in its second year, is one of a number of ways the city is continuing to tackle a perennial problem: The fact that low-income students fall further behind than their peers from affluent families over summer break.

Nine weeks off from school are replaced with books from home or structured summer programs for some children, but for many others the break means going months without having anything to read — which can lead to a phenomenon known as “summer slide.”

“It’s very real,” said Sam Dorrance, a teacher at Emolior Academy. “And a lot of times, if they continue doing that year after year, reading doesn’t seem like something you get better at. It ends up appearing as though it’s just not something that’s for you.”

Emolior Academy was one of 18 schools and three community-based organizations that participated in the iPad-based program, called SummerSail, provided by the company LightSail. (CEO Gideon Stein is also on Chalkbeat’s board.) About 400 students received tablets loaded with novels, nonfiction books, poems, and articles tailored to their reading levels and were tasked with reading for four hours a week.

Students then met with teachers like Derrance every Monday for about four hours. He required them to write at least one “digital sticky note” about the book they were reading, asking a question or offering a summary or review.

It’s a structure that makes sure students have things to read that make sense to them, said Yolanda Rice, a reading coach at M.S. 385 in Brooklyn. Even for students who do have access to books at home, what’s available “might be too high or too low, or just the library that they have in their home is not diverse enough,” she said.

Sarah Pitcock, CEO of the National Learning Association, said programs like SummerSail and lower-tech book distributions can’t be expected to help students close big gaps in their reading skills. But they can maintain skills as students progress to the next grade level.

“The lowest-income students lose two to three months of their reading skills,” Pitcock said. “To have that evaporate over the course of the summer is huge.”

The pilot program has been available to schools in the city’s Middle School Quality Initiative, which aims to bring high-needs students up to grade level in reading and writing. Since 2012, initiative has provided schools with funds to lengthen the day, add tutors, train teachers, and buy books. (MSQI will grow to 108 schools, from 87, next year, the city announced Wednesday.)

Whether SummerSail specifically will help students hold onto those skills isn’t yet clear. The city has not completed an analysis of the program, and LightSail is working with Johns Hopkins University to conduct a study that will compare participants’ skills in June and September of this year to those of a control group of similar students.

Parrales, for one, said she still preferred reading “real” books. Her tablet required Internet access and did not have enough of a selection of anime, her favorite genre.

But she said she knew through experience that students who “don’t really read over the summer fall behind when they come back from school.”

“That’s why I’m here,” she said.

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.