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After 41 SESIS errors over two hours, a special-ed teacher joins a push for reform

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Special-education teacher Megan Moskop at a forum Monday where she described problems with the data-tracking system, SESIS.

When her son was in pre-kindergarten, Tiffany Zerges asked the city to find out whether he had a disability and to come up with a plan to serve him.

“Although by law we were allowed a response to our request within 60 days,” Zerges said at a special-education forum this week, “60 days came and went, then 90, then 120 days.”

Once her son was belatedly evaluated, specialists contracted by the city began working with him. But those specialists rarely coordinated with the boy’s teachers or updated Zerges on his progress, she said, adding that she met with service providers just twice over three years.

“Children are losing months and even years of their education while we wait,” said Zerges, whose son is now in second grade at P.S. 361 in Manhattan. “We need changes to happen now.”

Monday’s forum was organized by a coalition of faith-based groups called Metro IAF, which hosted two similar forums last May that Chancellor Carmen Fariña attended. Though Fariña promised then that services for the nearly 188,000 city students with disabilities would improve under her restructuring of the education department, the group insisted Monday that special-education problems remain widespread.

The department confirmed that earlier this month when it released data showing that nearly 30 percent of students with disabilities, like Zerges’ son, had to wait longer than the legal limit to receive the plans that initiative support services. The report, which was mandated by a City Council law, also said that 35 percent of students only receive some of the services they require, while 5 percent — or almost 8,600 students — receive none at all.

The city has cautioned that those figures are not fully reliable because of grave flaws with the department’s $130 million special-education tracking system, known as SESIS. The online system has been plagued by technical problems since it launched in 2011, and student information remains on multiple, disconnected databases. Early on, the system’s glitches forced so many teachers to input data on evenings and weekends that an arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay out $38 million in overtime.

At Monday’s forum, special-education teacher Megan Moskop said SESIS remains as troubled as ever.

During a recent two-hour session she spent plugging data into SESIS, Moskop said she received 41 error messages. The time spent contending with the faulty system leaves less time to work with students, she said.

“We educators want to be helping students with disabilities,” said Moskop, who teaches at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, “but instead we’re pressured and sometimes forced to prioritize this dysfunctional data-keeping over real student service.”

Last month, Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit against the city claiming that problems with SESIS have left some students without services and caused the city to lose millions of dollars in Medicaid reimbursements. On Wednesday, the city’s Independent Budget Office said those reimbursements fell $373 million short of the city’s initial projections from 2012 to 2015.

At the forum, Metro IAF members called on Fariña to quickly initiate a series of reforms, such as adding extra members to the teams that create plans for pre-K students with disabilities and fixing SESIS.

“This is not just a moral obligation to educate every child,” said Rabbi David Adelson of the East End Temple in Manhattan. “It’s also federal law to provide decent services.”

An education department spokesman said that the city is working to improve its Medicaid claiming process and expects to see an increase in claims this year. Rule changes and a “corrective action plan” the city was required to enact have limited its ability to file claims, he added.

He also said that a multi-agency task force is looking for ways to improve SESIS, and that the department has launched several new programs for students with autism, hired 300 extra occupational therapists, and added staffers to help create learning plans for students with disabilities.

“We know there is more work to be done,” said the spokesman, Harry Hartfield, “and we will continue to invest in programs and services to ensure that every student can succeed.”

early running

Denver school board race opens up as Rosemary Rodriguez announces she won’t seek re-election

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Board member Rosemary Rodriguez speaks at Abraham Lincoln High (Chalkbeat file)

Denver school board member Rosemary Rodriguez said Wednesday that she is not running for re-election, putting her southwest Denver seat up for grabs in what will likely be a contentious school board campaign this fall with control of the board at stake.

Rodriguez told Chalkbeat she is retiring from her job as senior advisor to Democratic U.S. Senator Michael Bennet and plans to sell her home and buy a smaller one that belonged to her grandparents.

That home is not in her school board district, District 2, but in the district represented by board member Lisa Flores. With the exception of at-large members, Denver school board members must live in the districts they represent.

“If it weren’t the case, I would still be running,” Rodriguez said.

During her four-year tenure, Rodriguez worked with community groups and others to spotlight student achievement in southwest Denver, leading to new schools and better transportation.

Former Denver Public Schools teacher and Denver native Angela Cobian announced Wednesday that she is running for the seat. Rodriguez has endorsed Cobian, a political newcomer who works for the nonprofit Leadership for Educational Equity, which helps Teach for America members and alumni get involved in politics and advocacy.

All seven current board members support Denver’s nationally known brand of education reform, which includes a “portfolio” of traditional district-run, charter, magnet and innovation schools.

With four of the the board’s seats up for grabs this November, the campaign presents an opportunity for opponents of those reforms to again try to get a voice on the board.

The field is still very much taking shape. The most competitive race so far involves District 4 in northeast Denver. Incumbent Rachele Espiritu, who was appointed to the seat last year, announced her campaign earlier this month. The board chose Espiritu after its initial pick, MiDian Holmes, withdrew after details of a child abuse case came to light.

Also filing paperwork to run in District 4 is Jennifer Bacon, who was a finalist in the process that led to the board picking Espiritu. Auontai “Tay” Anderson, the student body president of Manual High School, declared his candidacy for the northeast Denver seat in April.

Incumbents Mike Johnson and Barbara O’Brien have not yet filed election paperwork with the state. Two candidates have declared for O’Brien’s at-large seat: Julie Banuelos and Jo Ann Fujioka.

equity issues

A report found black students and teachers in Denver face inequities. Can these 11 recommendations make a difference?

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/Denver Post
A student at Ashley Elementary School in Denver.

Helping African-American families understand their children’s school choices, offering signing bonuses to prospective black teachers and making student discipline data count in school ratings are among the recommendations of a task force that tackled inequities faced by African-American students and educators in Denver.

“Once we were able to get past some of the hurts that people experienced, once we were able to come up with the root causes and understand this process is going to be uncomfortable, we were able to come together in a way to do the work we need to do,” Allen Smith, the associate chief of Denver Public Schools’ Culture, Equity and Leadership Team, said Wednesday at an event to reveal the recommendations and solicit feedback at Bruce Randolph School on the city’s northeast side.

The DPS African-American Equity Task Force, which was comprised of more than 100 members, made 11 recommendations in all. (Read them in full below.) They include directing the district to:

— Design a tool to assist African-American families in understanding which schools best match their students’ needs and interests, and “generate personalized recommendations.”

— Require every school to create an Equity Plan “designed to strengthen relationships between African-Americans and schools” through strategies such as home visits by teachers.

— Ensure curriculum is culturally responsive to African-American students.

— Develop a plan to increase black students’ access to “high value learning opportunities,” including the district’s gifted and talented program, and concurrent enrollment courses.

— Create a human resources task force that would, among other things, ensure African-American job candidates receive equal consideration and once hired, equal pay.

— Incentivize black educators to come to DPS and stay, and create a pipeline program to encourage black students “to return to serve their own communities.”

The recommendations do not include a price tag. Nor have they “been evaluated for legal compliance,” according to the document.

The task force was created in the wake of a critical report documenting the concerns of 70 African-American Denver educators. The educators said black teachers feel isolated and passed-over for promotions. Black students are being left behind academically, the teachers said, in part because of low expectations and harsh discipline by teachers who are not black.

Thirteen percent of the district’s approximately 92,000 students are African-American. Last year, just 4 percent of DPS teachers were black. Seventy-four percent were white.

District statistics show that the percentages of African-American students who are proficient in English and math, as measured by state tests, trail district averages. Only a third of black students graduated college-ready last year, which is lower than white or Latino students.

Meanwhile, more black students are identified as needing special education. And African-American students have the highest suspension rate in the district.

The district has taken some steps to address the inequities. DPS is part of a multi-year campaign along with the mayor’s office and charter school operators to recruit more than 70 teachers of color and 10 school leaders of color to Denver.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg noted at Wednesday’s event that DPS is starting to see results; one-quarter of new principals hired to lead schools next year are African-American, he said.

For the first time this year, the district required its new teachers to take a previously optional three-hour course on culturally responsive teaching in which they were asked to share fears about working with students and families from different backgrounds.

DPS also added a new measure this year to its color-coded school rating system that takes into account how well schools are educating traditionally underserved students. However, the district has since tweaked its “equity indicator” in response to concerns from school leaders, and the task force recommended even more changes. In addition to looking at student test scores, it is calling for including discipline data, as well as teacher hiring, retention and promotion data.

And the district has announced plans to eliminate out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for preschool through third-grade students except in the most serious incidents.

The set of 11 recommendations includes one overarching one: the creation of an African-American Equity Team to ensure the district executes the ideas it adopts.

“A deep thank you for your work and a deep thank you in advance for the work we will be doing together,” Boasberg said.

The recommendations are scheduled to be presented to the Denver school board in June.

Read the full recommendations below.