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.

uncertain future

Could Carmen Fariña be ousted if mayoral control expires? We asked the borough presidents, who may control her fate

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña (center) unveils a new evaluation agreement with teachers union chief Michael Mulgrew (left)

When state lawmakers left the capitol Wednesday night without a deal on mayoral control of New York City schools, several questions went unresolved. One of them is whether Chancellor Carmen Fariña would retain her post if mayoral control lapses on July 1.

While no one is predicting her ouster, it’s one of many strange outcomes that could result if the education system’s governance structure is upended. With the session now over, legislators have until the end of the month to renew Mayor Bill de Blasio’s control of the nation’s largest school system.

With the state Senate and Assembly still at odds, it remains possible that the law could expire — setting off a chain of events briefly initiated the last time it lapsed, in 2009.

If that happens again, the city will resurrect the city’s Board of Education, which consists of five members selected by each of the borough presidents and two appointed by the mayor. That board, in turn, has the power to select the chancellor. (In 2009, this went off without incident and the board unanimously decided to reappoint the sitting chancellor, Joel Klein.)

Yet, there’s no guarantee that would happen again. So we reached out to each of the five borough presidents to see if they would commit to backing Fariña. One borough president said “yes,” the others did not commit. The borough presidents spoke Thursday and requested a meeting with the mayor, according to Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.

Still, it is early to make predictions — especially since the law has not even expired yet.

“In the immediate, there’s still time on the clock for Albany to act,” said education department spokeswoman Toya Holness in an email. “If mayoral control is to lapse, that could be a legitimate concern.”

For each borough president, we asked the question: If mayoral control lapses, would you commit to keeping Carmen Fariña as chancellor? Here’s what they said:

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams

(Photo courtesy of Flickr)

Adams sent the most extensive statement, saying that although he strongly supports mayoral control, he has serious critiques of the education department’s leadership.

“I have repeatedly expressed my frustration with leadership at the DOE [Department of Education], who I do not believe are effectively carrying out Mayor de Blasio’s vision for improving our schools. Outstanding issues include underinvestment in school technology infrastructure, significant inequities in allocation of Fair Student Funding dollars, disparities in gifted and talented education, resistance to training and support for new learning devices like tablets, inaction on liberalizing school space usage policy for community-based organizations, and poor community notification on significant changes to school utilization. Regardless of who is in charge at Tweed, it is critical that impactful issues like these are addressed.

Ensuring that these issues are addressed is the only pledge or commitment I am comfortable making today.”

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer

Brewer’s office gave the most direct answer. “The answer is yes,” wrote Jon Houston, her director of communications, in an email. But with Brewer’s vote and, assuming the mayor’s appointees all select Fariña, the board will still be one vote short of keeping the current chancellor.

Queens Borough President Melinda Katz

Katz’s office said she would not fully commit to keeping Fariña, but her stance suggests she is not looking for a permanent shake-up.

“Borough President Katz is a firm believer in mayoral control, and has been throughout her entire tenure in public service,” said her spokeswoman in a statement. “She has worked very closely with Mayor de Blasio on the great work he’s done on education, and, as always, believes the mayor should remain responsible for the schools under mayoral control. Any app‎ointment she may have to make to a reconstituted Board of Education‎ would be temporary until mayoral control is re-extended.”

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.

Reached Thursday morning, officials from Diaz’s office did not have a comment. But the last time this happened, he was the only borough president who refused to back the chancellor prior to the vote, though he did vote to retain him.

Staten Island Borough President James Oddo

(Photo courtesy of Flickr)

Reached Thursday morning, officials from Oddo’s office did not have a comment. We’ll update this post if that changes.

tailoring transformation

How a Memphis school that missed the turnaround tide plans to catch up under Hopson’s budget

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Principal Antonio Harvey shows kindergarteners how to blow bubbles during a graduation celebration at Hawkins Mill Elementary School in the Frayser community of Memphis.

Located in one of the most concentrated neighborhoods of school turnaround work in America, Hawkins Mill Elementary School is in many ways a throwback to Memphis public education before the city became a battleground for school improvement efforts.

It’s one of the few schools in the city’s Frayser community that hasn’t undergone a major intervention plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter and Innovation Zone schools that surround it.

But that’s about to change.

As part of his initiative to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson picked Hawkins Mill to join more than a dozen other Memphis schools that will receive new resources under next year’s budget for Shelby County Schools. (You can see the full list here.)

Dubbed “critical focus schools,” the schools were chosen for reasons that range from poor test scores to low enrollment to aging buildings — all criteria that district leaders have used in recent years to close more than 20 schools.

Now, about $5.9 million in new investments soon will be spread across the schools based on transformation plans developed this spring with school administrators, teachers and parents in partnership with district leaders.

Principal Antonio Harvey says the process has inspired a climate of hope at Hawkins Mill, which has been among the state’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools since 2012.

“We’re getting the message out there that we’re invested in this community, we’re not giving up on this community, we support you,” said Harvey, who just completed his fourth year at the elementary school.

For years, the school’s leaders have tried to turn around academics in a zip code where about half the households live on less than $25,000 per year. But there’s never been a significant influx of resources, making progress negligible.

As part of Hopson’s budget, Hawkins Mill will receive an extra $300,000, mostly for staff hires that include a science teacher, teacher assistants, an instructional facilitator and an interventionist. The school also will require more team projects in classrooms; add a STEM specialty for science, technology, engineering and math; and host a dance academy under Watoto Memphis, an Afro-centric performing arts program.

“We were able to sit down and put a lot of energy into the plan because the thinking process was already there,” Harvey said of the new strategy.

Most of the needs had been identified in previous years but were a pipe dream without additional investments, according to Janet Rutherford, the school’s professional learning coach.

“Now we can make this happen,” she said.

 

Teams for other critical focus schools also have been developing transformation plans, each tailored to meet their individual needs and challenges.

Some are borrowing components from Shelby County Schools’ flagship turnaround program called the iZone. Those include an hour tacked onto the school day, retention bonuses for top teachers, and more teacher coaches.

Like other schools in the newest initiative, Hawkins Mill will have to meet benchmarks within three years if it wants to avoid closure. Those benchmarks are still being identified, but school leaders at Hawkins Mill are already figuring out how to address other challenges with enrollment, attendance and behavior. The plan includes home visits for chronically absent students and launching Hawks Buck Store, a weekly incentive program in which students can win prizes for good behavior.

Note: 2013-14 science and 2014-15 social studies test scores were not listed in the state report card. Elementary students did not take TNReady in 2015-16.

Community leaders are welcoming the investments in a school that was eyed for takeover in 2015 by Tennessee’s Achievement School District. At the time, Hawkins Mill was being considered for operation by the ASD’s direct-run Achievement Schools, which includes five Frayser schools already in turnaround mode.

Charlie Caswell, a longtime community leader and pastor at Union Grove Baptist Church, said he hopes Shelby County Schools will use the Achievement Schools’ community engagement model as it implements the transformation plans.

“Our hope is that it will be a game-changer for schools to have the autonomy based on what they know their needs are in the community,” he said.