First Person

Ask an Expert: My school is failing to make 'adequate yearly progress'

Q. I recently received a disturbing letter regarding my school. I love my neighborhood school, but the letter indicated it’s not meeting adequate yearly progress under NCLB and it said I could send my daughter to a higher performing school and that her transportation would be covered and she would be guaranteed placement. I don’t know how to make sense of this. I am leaning toward keeping my daughter at the school and staying involved as a parent, but it feels as if someone is giving up on us. What if many parents pull out their kids? What happens to the school then, or in the future? Should I reconsider my gut feeling to keep my daughter at this school? She has three years to go.

Many reasons to choose a school – beyond CSAP

First, do your research

You have asked a timely and important question that is also quite complex.  I am going to provide some short answers, and also direct you to the Colorado Department of Education where there are pages and pages of information about Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP):

Under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), schools have a target for all children to be proficient in reading and math as measured by CSAP (or soon to be TCAP) by spring 2014.  When NCLB was adopted, targets were set for each year leading up to 2014. For 2011, the target was near 95 percent for elementary schools in reading and writing with slightly lower percentages required for middle and high schools. So, in order for schools to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) they must have 95 percent of students earning partially proficient, proficient, or advanced on CSAP in reading and math.

Please note that for AYP, students earning “partially proficient” are counted as “proficient.”  There is also a requirement that 95 percent of students in CSAP testing areas be tested. In addition, there are some ways that schools can show significant improvement to achieve AYP without meeting the targets. But, most schools meeting AYP do so through having nearly 95 percent of students earning partially proficient, proficient, or advanced on CSAP in reading and math.

Many schools fail to meet AYP

In 2010, only 62 percent of schools achieved AYP.  Your daughter’s school is certainly not alone in not making AYP!  For Title I schools, those schools receiving additional funding due to higher percentages of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch, there are significant implications of not meeting AYP.  The second consecutive year in which a Title I schools fails to meet AYP a letter must be sent to parents telling parents of this and allowing parents to transfer their child(ren) to another school in the district that is making AYP.  That is why you received the letter that you received.  It is required by NCLB that parents are notified if their school is not making AYP after the second year.

What happens in the third year or beyond of not making AYP

If the school fails to make AYP for a third year, they must provide supplemental services to students who are low-income and low-performing.  For instance, they may provide after-school tutoring at no cost to families.  After four and five years of not making AYP, schools may face corrective action and restructuring.  Corrective action may be something such as required additional professional development for the staff.  Restructuring may include such things as hiring a new principal or new staff members.

Not all families jump ship

In my experience, some families will decide to move their child after receiving this letter, but many will not.  For many families, the alternative provided by the district presents challenges.

Although transportation is provided to the other school, it is much harder for parents to be involved when the school is farther away from home.  My guess is that families who are very concerned about CSAP results likely have already moved their child out of the school or chose a different school from the beginning.  If you feel like your daughter is receiving a good education where she is, then I would suggest leaving her at the school.  There are so many other measures of success for a school.

Other reasons for open enrolling

Kathleen LutteneggerI open enroll my daughter into another elementary school in our district.  I think her school is absolutely wonderful!  That said, it pales in comparison to what would be our assigned school based on CSAP alone. Our assigned school has extremely high CSAP scores whereas the school we choose tends to score much lower.  However, I know that the school she is at is much better suited for her as a learner and for us as a family. I am involved at her school and I feel confident about what she is learning and doing as a student.  That is much more important to me than her school’s CSAP scores, which tend to reflect family income perhaps more than the quality of education.

– Kathleen Luttenegger

Ask yourself these key questions

I love your thoughtful, considered approach to this letter offering change.  There are not many places in our lives that consider or encourage slow, measured decision making.  Taking that approach is encouraging to me and great modeling for your kids.

As you work with this concern you might do a pro/con column.  Ask questions such as:

  • What would you gain by moving?
  • What would you lose?
  • What would gain by staying? Lose?
  • Who is sending in the letter?
  • What would they gain if you moved?
  • What would they lose?

Suzanne LustieYou know what is good for you, your family and your community.  There isn’t a perfect school.  We make the best choice we can for our kids and our family and then work with that decision.

NCLB (No Child Left Behind) is only one measure.  It’s a measure that is not universally recognized.  It’s unfortunate that a letter would cite that as a reason for dismissing what another school is doing.  If a school is taking care of business you will be able to see that with several measures not just one.

I encourage you to broaden the lens you are using if you are curious after a pro/con exercise turns up reasons for further exploration.  Thank you for being the kind of thoughtful parent that makes our schools thrive.

– Suzanne Lustie

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.