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.

3-K for All

Mayor Bill de Blasio announces plan to expand universal pre-K to 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio delivers his State of the City address at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.

Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to offer prekindergarten to every 3-year-old child in New York City, he said Monday in one of his most ambitious education announcements to date.

Calling the initiative “3-K for All,” de Blasio said the plan will start by expanding pre-K seats for younger children in District 7 in the Bronx and District 23 in Brooklyn over the next two years and encouraging more families to enroll in existing seats. The plan builds on de Blasio’s signature education initiative — a push to provide free pre-K to every 4-year-old in New York City — which he highlights as a major success.

“We have proven through the growth of Pre-k for All that it can be done, and it can be done quickly,” de Blasio said at a press conference Monday at P.S. 1 in the Bronx.

But the initiative will take a while to reach every 3-year-old in the city. The city plans to fund eight districts on its own by 2021, but also wants to raise enough outside funding to make it universal by that time.

Over the past two years, the city has enrolled at least 50,000 additional students in pre-K programs, bringing the total to more than 70,000. Still, research has shown the city’s program is highly segregated — a reality schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has described as a product of parent choice.

Officials cautioned the roll-out would probably be even more difficult than expanding pre-K to 4-year-olds and suggested they would need state and federal funding to make it a reality. The city anticipates adding 4,500 new teachers to staff the effort. In order to reach all city school districts, the city will need to raise $700 million in outside funding, de Blasio said.

“This is going to be a game-changer,” the mayor said, “but it’s also going to be hard to do.”

You can read the city’s announcement here.

Two for one

Schools in Pueblo, Greeley up next as state sorts out struggling schools

Charlotte Macaluso, right, speaks with Pueblo City Schools spokesman Dalton Sprouse on July 22, 2016. (Pueblo Chieftain file photo)

The Colorado Department of Education is expected Monday to suggest that five of the state’s lowest-performing schools, including one that was once considered a reform miracle, hire outsiders to help right the course.

The department’s recommendations for the schools — three in Pueblo and two in Greeley — are the latest the State Board of Education are considering this spring. The state board, under Colorado law, is required to intervene after the schools have failed to boost test scores during the last six years.

Like all the schools facing state intervention, the five before the state board Monday serve large populations of poor and Latino students.

A year ago, Pueblo City Schools was expected to pose the biggest test of the state’s school accountability system. A dozen of the city’s schools were on the state’s watch list for chronic poor performance on state standardized tests. However, most of the city’s schools came off that list last year.

Among the schools still on the list and facing state intervention is the storied Bessemer Elementary, where barely 9 percent of third graders passed the state’s English test last spring.

The school, which sits in the shadow of the city’s downsized steel mill, has been in a similar situation before.

After the state first introduced standardized tests in 1997, Bessemer was flagged as the lowest performing school in the state. District and city officials rallied and flushed the school with resources for students and teachers. Soon, students and teachers at the Pueblo school were being recognized by President George W. Bush for boosting scores.

But a series of leadership changes, budget cuts and shifts in what’s taught eroded the school’s progress.

Pueblo City Schools officials declined to be interviewed for this article.

The 17,000-student school district was preparing to make slightly more dramatic changes to improve things at Bessemer. Officials were going consolidate the school into just three grades, preschool through second, and send the older students to a nearby elementary school that is also on the state’s watch list. That school, Minnequa Elementary, is expected to face sanctions next year if conditions don’t improve.

But the district and its school board backed down after the community rejected the idea.

“With the input gathered, we determined that, at this time, changes to the grade reconfiguration were not in the best interest of the communities involved,” Pueblo Superintendent Charlotte Macaluso said in a press release announcing the changes. “We realize the sense of urgency and will continue to support our schools while closely monitoring improvement at each location.”

The decision to not reorganize the schools was made earlier this week.

Suzanne Ethridge, president of the Pueblo Education Association, the city’s teachers union, said the last-minute pullback was troubling. The district, she said, has held up staffing the schools until a final decision was made.

“I just hope we can get to a final plan and we can move on and get these schools going in the right direction,” Ethridge said.

According to documents provided to the state, district officials are expected to tell the state board they want to go along with what the state education department is proposing.

But some in the city are wary of involvement by outside groups because the district has been burned by outside groups in the past.

According to a 2012 Denver Post investigation, Pueblo City Schools had a three-year, $7.4 million contract with a New York-based school improvement company. The company was hired to boost learning at six schools. Instead, school performance scores dropped at five of the six schools.

“It wasn’t a lot of fun,” Ethridge said.

Other schools in Pueblo that will appear before the state board are the Heroes Academy, a K-8, and Risley International, a middle school. The state is recommending that Risley maintain a set of waivers from state law. The flexibility for Risley, and two other Pueblo Middle Schools, were granted in 2012.

The hope was the newfound freedom would allow school leaders and teachers to do what was necessary to boost student learning. That happened at Roncalli STEM Academy and the Pueblo Academy of the Arts.

But Risley has lagged behind.

Macaluso was the principal of Risley before being appointed superintendent last fall.

Like Risley, the state is recommending that two Greeley middle schools be granted waivers and hire an external manager to run some of the schools’ operations.

The state’s recommendation in part runs contrary to what a third party review panel suggested last spring. The panel, which visited all of the state’s failing schools, suggested Franklin be converted to a charter school. That’s because the school lacked leadership, according to the panel’s report.

Greeley officials say the school’s administration team, which has not changed, has received training from the state’s school improvement office, which has proven effective.

As part of the shift, Franklin and Prairie Heights middle schools will change the way students are taught. The schools will blend two styles of teaching that are in vogue.

First, students will receive personalized instruction from a teacher, assisted by digital learning software. Second, students will also work either individually or in teams to solve “real-world problems” on a regular basis.

“These schools have students with some important needs,” said Greeley’s deputy superintendent Rhonda Haniford, who helped designed the plan. “It’s more reason to have a personalized curriculum.”

The 21,000-student school district has already contracted with an organization called Summit to provide the digital curriculum and a cache of projects. The organization will also provide training for the school’s principal and teachers.

Haniford acknowledged that when struggling schools make major shifts it can be difficult, and sometimes student learning fall even further behind. But she said Summit is providing regular training for teachers and principals.

“The district made an intentional decision to support the turn around of these schools,” Haniford said, adding that she was hired last year as part of that effort. “This is one of my top priorities.”