Taking Stock

City took steps to boost academic diversity in 2015, new report shows

The city quietly took steps to diversify dozens of middle and high schools last year, according to an education department report released Wednesday.

The department stopped most middle schools in three districts from screening applicants based on their academic records, and allowed 51 low-performing middle schools to recruit students from beyond their normal catchment areas, the report said. The department also added 20 new “educational option” high school programs designed to enroll students at different academic levels, according to the report, which listed several efforts to boost student diversity across the system that had not previously been announced.

In an email, David Tipson, executive director of the school-diversity advocacy group, New York Appleseed, singled out the increase in educational option schools as a “significant achievement” that “reverses the trend under the previous administration.”

The new report, he added, will “inform and elevate an important debate about the role of public policy in fostering school diversity.”

The report is a requirement of the School Diversity Accountability Act, a local law signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio in June, which followed a headline-grabbing 2014 study that said New York City has one of the nation’s most segregated school systems.

The tendency of students to attend separate schools based on their race and class gained renewed attention in 2015, thanks to media coverage, grassroots integration efforts, and flare-ups over school zones. But many of the city’s efforts to boost school diversity focus on potential proxies for race and class — such as students’ home language or their academic performance — and on disabilities.

For instance, the “ed opt” high schools admit a certain percentage of students with above-average, average, and below-average academic skill levels in an attempt to develop a diverse population. In contrast, many of the city’s most sought-after high schools only accept applicants with strong academic records. With the new additions, 146 of the city’s roughly 700 high school programs now use the ed-opt admissions system.

The districts that will mostly do away with academic screening at middle schools beginning next fall are District 7 in the Bronx and Districts 16 and 22 in Brooklyn, according to the report.

The 51 middle schools that can now recruit students from throughout their entire boroughs, not just their local zones or districts, are part of the city’s “Renewal” program for struggling schools. It’s unclear whether that policy, which is meant to address the very low enrollment at those schools, will be enough to draw in new students — much less a mix of students from different backgrounds.

To promote linguistic and perhaps ethnic diversity, the city added new dual-language programs this year that mix together native and non-native English speakers. It also began publishing admissions materials in multiple languages and calling Spanish-speaking families to encourage them to enroll their children in school.

The report also said the city launched a new pilot program this fall that set up support centers for homeless students during certain high school admissions fairs. Individual eighth-graders who live in temporary housing were invited to visit the support centers during the fairs to receive personal counseling, according to the report.

The integration of students with special needs into classes with non-disabled peers continued to be a focus.

The city expanded a program that mixes together students with and without autism, and added new bilingual special education classes. It also gave schools enrollment targets for students with disabilities, though the report does not indicate what share of schools hit those targets.

Some of the new initiatives are designed to spur socioeconomic diversity. Most notably, the city will allow seven elementary schools to pilot admissions policies where they reserve a portion of seats for low-income students or English learners.

It also was awarded the first portion of what could amount to $10 million in new state grants this year intended to revamp low-performing schools partly by filling them with more higher-income students. The city is planning to do that by adding enrichment programs at eight target schools. However, some experts have questioned the city’s plans, saying they fall far short of real integration efforts.

The report also lists enrollment data for every district and school, including the share of students who have disabilities, live in shelters, qualify for subsidized lunches, and who are still learning English. It also tallies the racial breakdown of each school and how its students performed on state tests. Most, if not all, of that data was already publicly available — but now it is compiled into a single document that may make it easier to compare schools and spot trends.

Education department spokesman Harry Hartfield said there is “no single solution” to the lack of diversity at many of the city’s schools, but that the agency would continuing working with lawmakers, educators, and families “to foster more ideas on how to create diverse schools.”

City Councilman Brad Lander, who co-sponsored the diversity bill, said in an interview before the report was released that this first installment would serve as a baseline to measure the city’s progress over time.

“We know we have segregated schools,” he said. “It’s going to show us that in fine-grained detail.”

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.