Game changer

Changes embraced at Jeffco schools that serve low-income students

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Principal Susie Van Scoyk observed a class last spring. The Jeffco high school merged with a nearby middle school this fall to form Alameda Junior-Senior High School.

GOLDEN — Building and curriculum changes at schools serving most of Jefferson County’s low-income and Latino students are taking hold and working, the school board heard Thursday.

Early anecdotal evidence suggests the changes, which include combining four schools into two and developing a dual language program in primary schools, are resonating with teachers, students and parents, district leaders said.

But there are long-term building needs that the district will need to tackle and it’s still too early to know whether an emphasis to improve students’ vocabularies will be enough to boost achievement for those who are chronically behind.

“We’re in a good place,” said Susie Van Scoyk, principal of the reconfigured Alameda International Junior-Senior High School.

As part of the changes the school board approved last spring to schools in the Lakewood and Edgewater portions of Jefferson County that border Denver, Alameda High and O’Connell Middle schools merged to create the new grades 7-12 school.

Traffic congestion persists at the school, which now enrolls more than 1,300 students, 300 more than anticipated, Van Scoyk said. And classroom and meeting space are at a premium.

But, “it is really exciting to say, we’re full — we’re at capacity,” Van Scoyk said.

Alternatively, elementary students and teachers at the new Stein Elementary at O’Connell school are relishing their new digs, said Principal Samantha Salazar.

“We’re all under one roof,” Salazar said.

At the school’s former campus, kindergarteners were in mobile classrooms. Precious time was lost shuffling them in and out of the building for lunch or a trip to a library, especially during winter months, Salazar said.

And teachers now have a space to meet and plan together, Salazar said.

“No longer are we in a custodial closet to do our professional learning community,” she said.

At Jeffco’s second reconfigured junior-senior high school, Jefferson, older students have taken the lead to welcome the middle school students from the shuttered Wheat Ridge 5-8 school, said Karen Quanbeck, a Jeffco achievement director who oversees the schools in Edgewater.

“They feel a deep responsibility to mentor the junior-high students,” she said.

District officials believe the instructional changes at schools in the Edgewater area, including a push for stronger vocabulary skills and designing classes around projects, will boost student learning where it has traditionally fallen behind the more white and affluent district.

Jefferson has bounced on and off the state’s academic watch list for years.

No school in the area is on that list now. But student test scores across all grade levels in Edgewater continue to lag. Only about four of every 10 students at Lumberg Elementary could read at grade level in the third grade, according to state tests issued in 2014. At the same time, seven of every 10 Jeffco third graders were reading at grade level.

Given a switch in state assessments, it will be difficult in the near future to gauge whether the changes are effective. However, the schools will be using local benchmark assessments as a barometer.

Principals at both Alameda and Jefferson Junior-Senior High schools told the board a nascent concern is their aging buildings that are now “bursting at the seams” with students.

“We’re in our 60th year at Jefferson,” Principal Michael James said. “We can feel that in our building.”

School board members praised both communities for their work.

“We’ve come a long way from last year,” said board member Julie Williams. “We had parents lined up for public comment with many different concerns.”

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

next steps

Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.