time for an upgrade

New York City reveals new plans to upgrade its dysfunctional special education data system

The city’s deeply flawed special education data system will soon have a new group of staff members dedicated to fixing its longstanding problems.

Education officials confirmed Friday that the department has created a dozen new full-time positions for staffers to help fix the Special Education Student Information System, known as SESIS. The city also plans to spend about $6.3 million over five years for software upgrades and additional maintenance.

But the extent to which those investments will fix the system, which is used to track learning plans for the city’s 212,000 students with disabilities, remains to be seen.

SESIS has been mired in technical problems since it was launched in 2011 and has cost the city at least $130 million to develop. Early on, the glitchy, burdensome system resulted in so many educators entering information at night and on the weekends that an arbitrator forced the city to pay out $38 million in overtime.

More recently, officials have said the system’s inability to communicate with other databases of student information have made it impossible to precisely track whether students are receiving required services. And the city’s public advocate filed a lawsuit this February alleging SESIS has resulted in the loss of $356 million in Medicaid reimbursements.

An education department official said the new positions — five of which have already been filled — and improved software would ease some of those problems, promising more accurate data collection, an “enhanced ability” to collect money from Medicaid, and a better user experience for teachers.

Education officials under Chancellor Carmen Fariña have acknowledged the need to overhaul the system and convened a multi-agency working group last spring to find ways to improve it.

“Fixing SESIS remains a top priority,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in a statement. “We are aggressively working to address the concerns and continue to take significant steps to improve the system.”

Special education advocates said they are encouraged that the city is committing to new staff and software upgrades, but remain concerned about the scope and pace of the changes. Also unclear is whether parents will gain access to the system, a longtime request from parents that city officials have said is a long-term goal.

“We know the DOE is working on fixing it, but we don’t know what that looks like, or who’s doing it, or what happens in the interim,” said Lori Podvesker, a disability policy manager at IncludeNYC and a member of the city’s Panel for Education Policy, which votes on education policy changes and contracts. “I’m encouraged, but I question why this hasn’t been a priority sooner.”

To upgrade the system’s software, the city is in the final stages of contracting with PowerSchool Group LLC, the company that now owns the underlying program. That contract is going through the city’s Department of Information Technology and Communications, not the education department.

That raised concerns for Public Advocate Letitia James, who is currently suing the city over SESIS.

“It is extremely troubling that the DOE is planning to contract with a vendor that is using the initial SESIS software that has left so many children behind and cost taxpayers millions,” James wrote in a statement. “I am even more disturbed that the DOE is trying to once again circumvent the [Panel for Education Policy] entirely to get this contract approved — a practice we have seen in the past.”

The education department’s Holness insisted the contract to upgrade SESIS software “is going through the city’s rigorous public hearing and contracting process,” but did not dispute that the contract is being handled by the city’s information technology department because of their “expertise in overseeing complex technology projects,” and would therefore not be subject to a vote from the education policy panel.

Still, those who have tracked SESIS for years said the city appeared to be headed in the right direction.

“This is an important component of what needs to be done,” said Roger Maldonado, an attorney in a decades-long class action lawsuit against the education department over the timely provision of special education services and assessments.

Behind the numbers

New York City is touting grad rates at its lowest-performing high schools, but far fewer students are graduating from them

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
John Adams High School in Queens, a Renewal school.

When education officials announced this month that New York City had achieved the highest graduation rates in history, they made a point of highlighting the gains in high schools that have struggled for years.

At the city’s 31 “Renewal” high schools — historically low-performing schools that receive extra social services and academic support — graduation rates have increased 7 percent since 2014. That growth is greater than the 4.2 percent average boost across all high schools over the same timeframe (though at 59 percent, Renewal schools’ average grad rate is still still far below the city’s 72.6 percent average).

The city touted these figures as evidence that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Renewal program, which is projected to cost $850 million, is having an effect — good news for education officials who have struggled to point to clear signs of progress in the face of decidedly mixed results.

But despite the increase in graduation rates, Renewal schools are graduating far fewer students than even one year ago, according to a Chalkbeat review, and roughly half of Renewal schools have higher dropout rates than when the program started — a sign that the city is still struggling to persuade students to enroll and stay in them.

Just 3,371 students graduated from Renewal schools last year, 10 percent fewer than the previous year, and 18 percent fewer than the 4,121 who graduated three years ago, immediately before the program started rolling out.

August Martin High School, for instance, has boosted its graduation rate by nearly 14 percent over the past two years. But the Queens school also shed nearly a third of its 679 students over the same period.

“In one sense, it can almost be framed as a marketing problem,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Even though many Renewal schools have been losing students since before they were placed in the program, “schools that are struggling and have been identified [as Renewal schools] are not as attractive to families.”

Enrollment problems pose an existential threat. School funding is partially dependent on the number of students in the building, and as that number slips, schools may need extra cash just to offer core math and English classes — let alone extracurricular activities or art classes. And last month, the city cited low enrollment as one factor in its plan to close or merge nine Renewal schools.

Department of Education spokesman Michael Aciman acknowledged the enrollment drop-off, but pointed out that the rate of decline slowed across Renewal high schools this year. “We are explicitly working with school leaders and families to highlight improvements and help them get the word out about the strong work that is happening in an effort to reverse those trends,” he wrote in an email.

The new data also reveals that while a greater proportion of students at Renewal high schools are graduating, dropout rates have remained stubborn: Sixteen of the 31 Renewal high schools posted higher dropout rates last year than when the program started.

Partly due to enrollment declines, the raw number of students dropping out was about 25 percent lower last year than when the program started. But the overall dropout rate at Renewal schools has increased to 19 percent, about one percentage point higher than it was three years ago, and more than double the city average of 8.5 percent.

Aciman noted several efforts designed to shepherd high school students to graduation, including prep for high school exit exams, and tools that allow educators to better track students who are chronically absent or falling behind on credits.

And he pointed to data that shows progress in reducing in rates of chronic absenteeism and boosts in attendance — signs of engagement, he said, that could ultimately affect future graduation and dropout rates.

“Decreasing the dropout rate at Renewal schools will take time,” Aciman wrote, “but we’re putting the necessary structures and early interventions in place to make sustainable improvements.”

help wanted

Memphis charter office seeks to double in size to keep up with growing sector

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Stacey Thompson, charter planning and authorizer for Shelby County Schools, confers with director of charter schools Charisse Sales and Brad Leon, chief of strategy and performance management.

Shelby County Schools is about to double the size of its staff overseeing charter schools.

About a year after a national consultant called the district’s oversight deficient, the school system is seeking to reorganize its team and hire more help.

With 45 charter schools, Shelby County Schools is Tennessee’s largest charter authorizer but has only three people to watch over the sector — “lean for a portfolio of its size,” according to a report by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, or NACSA.

The charter office reviews applications for new schools, monitors quality of academic programs, ensures compliance with state and federal laws, and can recommend revocation for poor performance.

NACSA Vice President William Haft said the changes point to a school system that is becoming more sophisticated in collaborating with charter schools in order to improve innovation in the classroom.

Shelby County Schools “grew quickly as an authorizer,” he noted, and at a time when the district was also restructuring quickly due to the 2013 merger of city and county schools and subsequent exit of six municipalities.

“When you have just a handful of charter schools, naturally it’s just a small organization and you have an all-hands-on-deck mindset. … Everybody pitches in,” Haft said. “Now there’s an opportunity. And to their credit, the district is recognizing and … taking action to develop those structures that are now absolutely necessary.”

The new positions, which were advertised this month, would add more specificity to job responsibilities.

Brad Leon, the district’s chief of strategy and performance management, said the restructuring is to meet the needs of a growing number of charter school students, including thousands under the state-run Achievement School District who eventually will return to local governance.

“This is part of the strategic staffing plan …,” Leon said. “This team will be directly responsible for ensuring that children in our community have the opportunity to attain an excellent education and for moving forward the district’s priority around expanding high quality school options.”

The hires also are designed to boost the relationship between charters and the district, which have become increasingly strained over funding and processes. Last spring, confusion over the district’s charter policies came to a head with the revocation of four charters.

Shelby County Schools authorized its first three charter schools in 2003, one year after the state legislature passed a law allowing nonprofit operators to open schools in Tennessee. Though the sector has swelled to 45 schools, its oversight office has only grown from two to three staff members.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ education landscape, the district has sought to step up its oversight of them. Last year, Shelby County Schools issued its first-ever report on the state of charter schools in Memphis. A charter advisory committee also was created to find ways to improve oversight and collaboration in academics, financing and facilities.

Coming out of that committee is a voluntary authorizer fee. Many Memphis operators have said they are willing to pay the fee in exchange for better oversight and collaboration, including adding more staff to the charter office.

“(Charter leaders) look forward to continuing to work with them and others that the district looks to add to the office in order to continue the steps to becoming a high quality authorizer for SCS charter schools,” said Luther Mercer, Memphis advocacy director for Tennessee Charter School Center and co-chairman of the charter advisory committee.