students with disabilities

Investigation slams city over accommodations for students with disabilities

The city will now add students who attend class in trailers outside of school buildings into the main buildings’ enrollment counts.

New York City provides “inexcusable” accommodations for its young students with disabilities and has failed to address the problem for years, according to a U.S. Department of Justice investigation released Monday.

In a scathing letter, the office of Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan, details inadequate school entrances, alarm systems, and playgrounds that keep physically disabled students from attending their local elementary schools. Instead, these students are forced to travel long distances to receive the same education as their peers — a breach so severe it amounts to a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the investigation concluded.

“Nowhere is it more important to tear down the barriers to equal access than with respect to the education of our children,” reads the letter, signed by an attorney from the federal justice department. “But today, in New York City, 25 years after passage of the ADA, children with physical disabilities still do not have equal access to this most fundamental of rights.”

The letter, the product of a two-year investigation, offers a series of startling statistics. Six of the city’s community school districts — districts 3, 5, 8, 12, 16 and 21 —  have no “fully accessible” elementary schools. All told, 83 percent of public elementary schools in New York City do not meet that fully accessible standard, the report found.

The report also notes that half of the city’s students whose only disability is a mobility impairment end up at District 75 schools, which are sites meant for students with autism, cognitive delays, and emotional challenges.

Many of the city’s school buildings were built long before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. But even when renovating schools, the city has failed to upgrade existing facilities to accommodate students with disabilities, according to the report. An addition to a school in Queens built in 2000 includes an inappropriately sized elevator and bathroom grab bars.

The letter says the city defended its failure to provide disabled students access to schools by saying they only represent a small part of the public-school population. The letter dismissed this explanation as “unacceptable and inadequate.”

“The language in this is really sharp,” said Maggie Moroff, the special education policy coordinator at the nonprofit Advocates for Children. “They’re not messing around at all.”

Officials at the education department said they remain committed to helping students with disabilities and that their latest capital improvement plan sets aside $100 million for accessibility projects.

“We are reviewing the United States Attorney’s letter and remain committed to increasing the accessibility of our school buildings,” said education department spokesman Harry Hartfield.

The letter itself won’t immediately change facilities for students, Moroff said, but it provides validation to many advocates, families and lawyers who have been concerned about this problem for years.

“The fact that the DOJ is going to be looking at New York City and requiring New York City to answer to it is pretty tremendous,” Moroff said.

newark notes

In Newark, a study about school changes rings true — and raises questions — for people who lived them

PHOTO: Naomi Nix
Park Elementary principal Sylvia Esteves.

A few years ago, Park Elementary School Principal Sylvia Esteves found herself fielding questions from angst-ridden parents and teachers.

Park was expecting an influx of new students because Newark’s new enrollment system allowed parents to choose a K-8 school for their child outside of their neighborhood. That enrollment overhaul was one of many reforms education leaders have made to Newark Public Schools since 2011 in an effort to expand school choice and raise student achievement.

“What’s it going to mean for overcrowding? Will our classes get so large that we won’t have the kind of success for our students that we want to have?” Esteves recalls educators and families asking.

Park’s enrollment did grow, by about 200 students, and class sizes swelled along with it, Esteves said. But for the last two years, the share of students passing state math and English tests has risen, too.

Esteves was one of several Newark principals, teachers, and parents who told Chalkbeat they are not surprised about the results of a recent study that found test scores dropped sharply in the years immediately following the changes but then bounced back. By 2016, it found Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011.

Funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and conducted by Harvard researchers, the study also found the reforms had no impact on student math scores.

And while many Newark families and school leaders agree with the study’s conclusion — that students are making more progress now — they had very different ideas about what may have caused the initial declines, and why English growth was more obvious than math.

Supported by $200 million in private philanthropy, former superintendent Cami Anderson and other New Jersey officials in 2011 sought to make significant changes to the education landscape in Newark, where one third of more than 50,000 students attend privately managed charter schools. Their headline-grabbing reforms included a new teachers union contract with merit-based bonuses; the universal enrollment system; closing some schools; expanding charter schools; hiring new principals; requiring some teachers to reapply for their jobs; and lengthening the day at some struggling schools.

Brad Haggerty, the district’s chief academic officer, said the initial drop in student performance coincided with the district’s introduction of a host of changes: new training materials, evaluations, and curricula aligned to the Common Core standards but not yet assessed by the state’s annual test. That was initially a lot for educators to handle at once, he said, but teacher have adjusted to the changes and new standards.

“Over time our teaching cadre, our faculty across the entire district got stronger,” said Haggerty, who arrived as a special assistant to the superintendent in 2011.

But some in Newark think the district’s changes have had longer-lasting negative consequences.

“We’ve had a lot of casualties. We lost great administrators, teachers,” said Bashir Akinyele, a Weequahic High School history teacher. “There have been some improvements but there were so many costs.”

Those costs included the loss of veteran teachers who were driven out by officials’ attempts to change teacher evaluations and make changes to schools’ personnel at the same time, according to Sheila Montague, a former school board candidate who spent two decades teaching in Newark Public Schools before losing her position during the changes.

“You started to see experienced, veteran teachers disappearing,” said Montague, who left the school system after being placed in the district’s pool of educators without a job in a school. “In many instances, there were substitute teachers in the room. Of course, the delivery of instruction wasn’t going to even be comparable.”

The district said it retains about 95 percent of its highly-rated teachers.

As for why the study found that Newark’s schools were seeing more success improving English skills than math, it’s a pattern that Esteves, the Park Elementary principal, says she saw firsthand.

While the share of students who passed the state English exam at Park rose 13 percentage points between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, the share of students who were proficient in math only rose 3 percentage points in that time frame.

“[Math is] where we felt we were creeping up every year, but not having a really strong year,” she said. “I felt like there was something missing in what we were doing that could really propel the children forward.”

To improve Park students’ math skills, Esteves asked teachers to assign “math exemplars,” twice-a-month assignments that probed students’ understanding of concepts. Last year, Park’s passing rate on the state math test jumped 12 percentage points, to 48 percent.

While Newark students have made progress, families and school leaders said they want to the district to make even more gains.

Test scores in Newark “have improved, but they are still not where they are supposed to be,” said Demetrisha Barnes, whose niece attends KIPP Seek Academy. “Are they on grade level? No.”

Chalkbeat is expanding to Newark, and we’re looking for a reporter to lead our efforts there. Think it should be you? Apply here.  

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below: