SCOTUS on IDEA

U.S. Supreme Court, in landmark decision, strengthens rights for students with disabilities

In a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday better defined the federal standard public schools must meet for its special education students.

Students with learning disabilities are due “appropriately ambitious” education plans that ensure they will advance through public schools similarly to other students, a unanimous court said.

The court’s decision stems from a lawsuit filed by a suburban Denver family who enrolled their son, known as Endrew F. in court documents, in a private school after they felt the Douglas County School District failed their son, who was diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder.

The family sued the district seeking reimbursement for the private school’s tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The school district argued it met the minimum standard in the federal law that defines the rights of special education students.

While the state education department and lower courts agreed with the school district, Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the court’s opinion, did not.

“When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing merely more than ‘de minimis’ progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all,” Roberts wrote.

Federal law, he continued, “requires an educational program reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”

The decision stops short of defining what progress should look like. Instead, that should depend on each student, the court said.

In a statement, the Douglas County School District said it was confident the district was already meeting the higher standard and would prove so when a lower court takes up the Endrew F. case again.

“The Court did not hold that Douglas County School District failed to meet the new standard, or say that DCSD can’t proceed to prove that it met that standard,” said Douglas County School District Legal Counsel William Trachman in a statement. “Indeed, in this case, the Douglas County School District offered an appropriate Individualized Education Plan and we look forward to proving to the lower courts that the IEP meets the new, higher standard.”

The Colorado Department of Education also released a statement:

“The Colorado Department of Education is firmly committed to providing quality educational opportunities to students with disabilities.  We are pleased to see the that the Supreme Court’s decision seems to give greater clarity by saying an Individualized Education Program  must be ‘reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.’  We also appreciate the Court’s reminder that courts must defer to the expertise and judgment of school officials.”

The department will not take a position when the Tenth Circuit Court retries the case in light of the Supreme Court’s clarification of the legal standard.

pick a school

Denver touts record participation in school choice process

PHOTO: Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Students at McAuliffe International School. The school was among the most-requested this year. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Even as more Denver families participated in the annual public school lottery this year, about four out of five still got into a first-choice school, district officials announced Thursday.

More than 27,000 families submitted school choices, up 17 percent from last year. Officials attributed the big jump to several factors, including additional help the district provided to families to fill out the choice forms, which were online-only this year.

The window of time families had to submit choices was also pushed back from January to February, which gave families more time to tour schools and rank their top five choices.

Match rates – or the percentage of incoming elementary, middle, and high school students who got into their first-choice schools – dipped slightly from 82 percent last year to 81 percent this year. Brian Eschbacher, the district’s executive director of enrollment and planning services, said that’s not bad given that nearly 4,000 more families participated this year.

Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova said officials are “thrilled” with the record participation. The district received its first choice form at 12:02 a.m. on February 1, just two minutes after the window opened, she asid. The window closed February 28, and families found out last week which schools their children got into.

The reasons families participate in the lottery vary. Some want to send their children to charter schools or to district-run schools outside their neighborhood because they believe those schools are better. Others may be looking for a certain type of program, such as dual-language instruction.

This is the seventh year the 92,600-student district has used a single form that asks families to list their top five school choices. Those choices can be district-run or charter schools.

In part for making it relatively easy for parents to navigate the lottery, Denver has been named the best large school district in the country for choice by the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution think tank for two years in a row.

The district especially encourages families with children entering the so-called “transition grades” of preschool, kindergarten, sixth grade, and ninth grade to submit choice forms.

This year, the biggest increase in participation came at the preschool level, with 777 more families requesting to enroll in preschool programs, a 17 percent increase from last year. The second-biggest increase was at the high school level, with 359 more families participating.

The most-requested high school was the city’s biggest, East High School in east-central Denver. East is one of several more affluent Denver schools participating in a pilot program that gives preference to students from low-income families who want to choice into the school.

Last year, the pilot program resulted in every eighth-grader from a low-income family who applied for a spot in East’s freshman class getting in. Results from this year are not yet available for East and the other schools participating in the program, Eschbacher said.

The most-requested middle school was McAuliffe International School in northeast Denver. The most-requested elementary school was Swigert International School, which is also located in the northeast and follows the same International Baccalaureate curriculum as McAuliffe.

Shutting down

Two charter schools led by former Mayor Willie Herenton will close

PHOTO: The Commercial Appeal
Willie Herenton

A former superintendent who now leads six charter schools told Shelby County Schools he will close both of his network’s high schools this summer.

Du Bois High School of Arts and Technology and Du Bois High School of Leadership and Public Policy were already in danger of losing their charters because of poor academic performance. The charter network is led by former mayor and Memphis City Schools superintendent Willie Herenton.

In a letter to parents, Herenton said the decision was based on a shortage of “highly qualified” teachers. The letter was provided to Chalkbeat by Lemichael Wilson, who has three sons enrolled in the charter network.

“The market for securing the caliber of high school educators that meet these qualifications is very competitive and has made it increasingly challenging for us to compete as we would like,” the letter said, referring to meeting requirements such as proper certification for classes students need to graduate.

Wilson described the rate of teacher turnover at the arts and technology school as “ridiculous.” He recalled that in one year, his son had multiple teachers for a single class.

“I chose Du Bois because of the reputation of Dr. Herenton being with Memphis City Schools as superintendent and thought that the school would have an educational focus that was stronger than what it was — that the governance of the school would be better than what it was, and the administration would be better than what it was,” he said.

The decision affects a total of 287 students enrolled at both schools as of Feb. 1, according to Shelby County Schools data. That’s down from 322 students enrolled last year.

The high schools in Whitehaven and Southeast Memphis opened in 2013 and 2014 and are two of six in Herenton’s charter network. All but one of them are in danger of being shut down by the state next year because they rank in the bottom 5 percent of schools with low student test performance in Tennessee.

The arts and technology high school was also one of seven charters under Shelby County Schools that are in danger of closing if they don’t improve within two years, based on the district’s own evaluation. Three of those seven are in Herenton’s network.

Reached by phone, Herenton referred all requests for comment to Shelby County Schools, though the district did not play a role in closing the school this year.

A Shelby County Schools spokeswoman said the district would work with the charter network “to ensure that families are informed of their options” for next school year.

A request for comment from the charter network’s board chairman, Ernest Strickland, was not immediately returned.

The full letter is below: