backseat

Liu eschews own audit to focus on Medicaid reimbursements

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Liu at a press conference outside Tweed Courthouse, where he discussed Medicaid reimbursement for special education students.

New York City Comptroller John Liu’s audit into the city’s embattled special education data system, released today, hammered home well-established issues, but found few new problems with the three-year-old initiative.

Liu, who is running for mayor, instead used the occasion to highlight a challenge not mentioned in the audit — the city’s ongoing struggle to get reimbursed for low income students with disabilities who are entitled to federal Medicaid dollars. Over the last two years, the city has collected just 25 percent, or $74 million, of the $284 million amount that the city had hoped to be reimbursed for, Liu said today at a press conference.

Liu took the finding from a city budget report published this spring. But he said that responsibility for the losses lies with the city’s data system, which his audit criticized.

The data system, built to track 190,000 special education students with Individualized Education Plans, makes it “practically impossible” to file for reimbursements, Liu said, a claim that a city spokesman later disputed.

Schools began using the Special Education Student Information System (SESIS) in 2011 to keep better track of students with disabilities. School staff working with special education students are required to log information about all stages of their IEPs, including details about initial assessments, meetings with parents, services provided, and changes made to the plan.

But the system encountered glitches almost as soon as it was deployed in schools, with staff who used it complaining of frequent crashes, slow processing speeds, and a host of other technical problems. Logging information into the system was so tedious that an arbitrator ordered the city to pay out $38 million in overtime to more than 30,000 educators.

The city has so far paid $67 million to Maximus, Inc., a vendor that was picked to oversee development of the contract.

Liu’s audit looked at problems reported beginning in May 2010, when the department migrated student information from the many databases that had previously stored special education data. The reports show that while student data errors are on the decline, peaking at more than 400,000 in September of the 2012-2013 school year, there were still more than 100,000 errors as recently as April.

The audit also found instances of duplicate student records and that nearly 4,000 IEPs had to be manually changed during a three-month span this year.

But the system isn’t as unpopular with staff users as critics have indicated, according to the audit, which conducted a survey as part of the audit. Of nearly 600 educators who responded to the survey, just 7 percent said they were “not at all” satisfied with the system. More than 25 percent said they experienced glitches while using the system.

Department officials slammed the audit’s methodology and criticized it as being politically motivated based on Liu’s mayoral ambitions.

“This is an election year and it is imperative that the agenda of candidates for higher office not affect the running of the schools system,” said Marcus Liem, a department spokesman.

In its official response, the Department of Education complained that Liu’s audit was ill-timed. The Comptroller conducted the audit too early into the SESIS rollout, while it was still an “unfinished data system” that was still being built, the department said. They also said that Liu’s office declined to go along with the city’s request to delay the audit until after they had resolved the dispute with the teachers union about overtime pay.

Liem also disputed Liu’s claim that the city’s failure to collect Medicaid reimbursement was linked to SESIS issues. “Medicaid reimbursements are not affected because of SESIS,” he said. “That is completely false.”

Liem said a larger concern was that the state was not going to accept previously collected Medicaid forms when a new state law went into effect this spring, meaning the city would have had to recollect 110,000 forms. “But the State has since said that they would accept the old forms so this is no longer an issue,” Liem added.

Testifying at a City Council hearing earlier this year, Walcott said he expects to claim up to $40 million in reimbursements thanks to a new $1.2 million contract with Public Consulting Group. The contract is meant to make it easier for the city to collect reimbursements for students with disabilities who attend private school and whose tuition is covered by the city.

John Liu special education audit — Special Education Student Information System (SESIS)

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Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.