school safety

As de Blasio pushes fewer suspensions, advocacy group attacks school safety record

An advocacy group known for its opposition to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s education policies says the mayor misled the public when it trumpeted a drop in violence in New York City schools.

The criticism and an accompanying report mark a new tactic for the group, Families for Excellent Schools, and highlight de Blasio’s potential vulnerability on the issue of school safety. His administration has been mounting an effort to overhaul school discipline, urging schools to give out fewer suspensions and use alternative approaches.

In a report released Thursday, Families for Excellent Schools points to state data showing that violence in schools is increasing. Almost 16,000 violent crimes were reported in schools in 2015 — almost 3,000 more than the previous year — and the highest number of incidents since at least 2005, according to the report.

At the same time, city data — which is collected and submitted in a different way, and has long differed from the state’s numbers — show a decrease in the total number of safety incidents since last year and over the last decade.

City officials said that the state’s metric is deceiving because it not distinguish between minor interactions and severe altercations.

“This data is misleading; the total number of incidents at NYC public schools decreased nearly 8% last school year to historic lows, and crime, arrests and summonses are down across the board,” said Toya Holness, a spokeswoman for the education department.

State officials implied that the metric can be problematic, since schools report their own data, and said the education department has already convened a task force to revise the system. The group’s objective is to make it less complicated to report incidents and emphasize violent offenses, state officials said.

“The Department’s ultimate goal is to ensure that we are able to report the most accurate school safety data possible,” said Jonathan Burman, spokesman for the education department.

Even as de Blasio’s critics say his discipline-policy changes have made schools less safe, advocates have raised a different set of concerns. They support the shift to a less punitive approach to discipline, but say the city has done too little to help schools make the transition. On Wednesday, the group Educators 4 Excellence-New York held a demonstration at City Hall to call for more guidance counselors and de-escalation training for teachers.

De Blasio’s push for alternative discipline strategies is part of a national shift away from “zero tolerance” policies, which called for harsh penalties even for nonviolent infractions. Such policies have been shown to disproportionately affect students of color, while doing little to improve student behavior.

Last year, the city required principals to begin getting approval before suspending students for insubordination, and de Blasio convened a task force to make policy recommendations around school safety and discipline. The mayor’s budget for next school year includes funding for some schools to be trained in “restorative justice,” which pushes students to repair any harm their behaviors have caused.

As some schools are just beginning to make the switch to this new discipline approach, critics of the shift are looking for signs that it is backfiring. One student caught with seven bags of marijuana was given only a warning card, according to a recent New York Post article.

Families for Excellent Schools, which has previously been critical of the administration’s stance on charter schools and its “Renewal” school program, is now joining the fray.

But others said say their claim has little backing. Dawn Yuster, the social justice project director at Advocates for Children, said she has seen little evidence that de Blasio’s reforms hinder school safety.

“[The NYPD] are the last people that want to risk safety of anyone and they have been real supporters of trying to make change,” 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.