war of attrition

IBO admits charter school special ed attrition numbers missed the full picture

A widely publicized statistic showing that charter schools do a poor job of retaining their special education students was based on flawed data, the city’s Independent Budget Office has admitted.

The agency reported in January that 80 percent of special education students identified at the start of kindergarten in 2008 left their charter school within three years. But the real figure is likely different, since the IBO only accounted for students receiving full-time special education services—omitting students with less-severe needs.

“If we made a mistake, it was the following: we should have named our finding full-time special education students,” said Raymond Domanico, the IBO’s director of education research.

It’s not clear how much the error affected the results, given that relatively few students are already identified as having special needs at the very start of kindergarten.

Still, it complicates long-simmering debates about how well charter schools serve special education students in which the 80 percent figure had already become a flashpoint. That number was emphasized repeatedly in the IBO report, and prompted a number of headlines (and Chalkbeat coverage).

It also raises questions about how committed the agency is to accuracy, given its role as a nonpartisan education data watchdog. The state legislature specifically charged the IBO with sifting through Department of Education data when it voted to renew mayoral control of the city’s schools in 2009.

The IBO’s numbers leave out a large chunk of students who fall under the city’s special education umbrella, including students who get pulled out of general education classes for some period of the day and students who receive services like speech and occupational therapy. State data shows that 31 percent of the city’s special education students in 2008-9 received services for less than 40 percent of the school day.

Domanico blamed the error on confusing data the agency received from the Department of Education, since students labeled “special education” did not include all students receiving special education services.

And though he acknowledged that the report wasn’t as specific as it could be, Domanico insisted that a correction was not warranted because that finding still reflects special education students, it was one part of a report much larger in scope, and because the city’s data has been inconsistent in the past.

“There was nothing that’s incorrect,” he said. “Our findings still hold; it’s a matter of specifying who we’re talking about.”

Special education advocates see it differently. Ellen McHugh, a member of the Citywide Council on Special Education, said the IBO’s conflation was “misleading,” since many special education students don’t receive services full-time.

In a highly polarized environment, the agency’s independent status also gives its findings additional credibility, McHugh said.

“It’s disappointing for advocates who thought they had this as examples of discrimination [by charter schools]. It’s also reinforcement for charter school advocates who say everyone lies about charter schools,” she said.

The error was first brought to the IBO’s attention by researcher Marcus Winters, who is affiliated with the right-wing Manhattan Institute and had conducted a study using data on the same cohort of students, who were in kindergarten and at a charter school in the 2008-9 school year. (That study found that special education students left district schools and charter schools at about the same rate.)

Winters and the IBO used student data from different points in the school year, making direct comparisons between the two reports difficult. Still, Winters was struck by just how far apart their numbers of special education students were.

Returning to his data, Winters says he accounted for 198 such students in spring 2009; the IBO had counted just 25 that fall.

“Whatever it is, that number they’re using is way too small,” Winters said.

Winters asked the Department of Education to explain the discrepancies. The response from the department was that, in the confusing labyrinth of the city’s data sets, the total number of special education students is not captured by only those students labeled “special education,” but instead by the labels of “IEP” and “disability.”

Winters passed that along to the IBO, and the New York City Charter School Center noted his explanation last month. The IBO now says he’s right, but only acknowledged that publicly after inquiries from a reporter.

“It rang true to us when we heard it,” Domanico said about Winters’ information. “The data that we’re reporting is accurate, but perhaps it could have used the [‘full-time’] qualifier.”

defensor escolar

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.