moving the bar

Principals wonder how last-minute graduation rule changes will affect their students

PHOTO: Creative Commons/timlewisnm

As students across New York began taking mandatory Regents exams Tuesday, some of their principals were wondering whether their scores would matter at all.

That’s because the state’s Board of Regents passed a new set of rules this week that eliminate the need to earn passing scores for an estimated 2,200 students with disabilities. Those students will be able to earn a less-rigorous “local” diploma by passing just two Regents exams in math and English, but will not be required to pass tests in other subjects.

The decision left some educators wondering how the new rules, which take effect this month, would affect students with disabilities who are just weeks short of graduation, and what alternate measures would be used in place of the usual Regents exams.

“I’m sitting on the sidelines waiting to see what [the requirements] will look like,” said Abraham Lincoln High School Principal Ari Hoogenboom. “I have no sense at all.”

Under the new rules, it will be up to local superintendents to determine whether students who did not pass their additional Regents exams have demonstrated proficiency in those subjects and should graduate. They will be expected to review students’ final grades and coursework completed throughout the year, according to the rules.

Some principals saw the changes as positive. But most said they still don’t understand how they will work — or how the new rules will interact with the state’s existing appeals process for students with disabilities who are on the cusp of passing the tests.

For a student who doesn’t pass five Regents exams, “Do we appeal the score or do we demonstrate mastery to the superintendent?” Hoogenboom asked. “We’ll have to go down a list of all our students who were unable to graduate and say, This one is eligible for this program, and another student is eligible for another program, this other one is eligible for everything. What do we do?”

The principals didn’t anticipate a flood of students graduating who otherwise wouldn’t have. Hudson High School for Learning Technologies principal Nancy Amling said she thought only one or two of her students would be affected.

Still, the principals wondered if they would have to scramble to pull together examples of student work to show superintendents in the next few weeks.

“Are we supposed to create portfolios?” asked one transfer high school principal, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I don’t know how they would do that by the end of this year.”

City officials did not have specific answers Tuesday about how they would help principals and superintendents implement the new policy, or how many students they anticipated would be affected this year. An education department spokeswoman said the city is waiting for guidance from the state, and will work closely with superintendents and principals.

The changes are the latest battleground in a debate over how to balance rigorous graduation requirements against the reality that some students with disabilities struggle to meet them.

Several advocates for students with disabilities said easing graduation standards could help students earn a diploma and enable them to apply for a vocational program, get a job, or join the military. Those options were not available under a previous credential New York offered for students with disabilities that has since been eliminated.

“We have some of the most onerous exit exam requirements in the country,” said Abja Midha, a project director at Advocates for Children who runs the organization’s statewide coalition that advocates for students to have more options to earn a diploma. “We’re hoping this is the beginning of thoughtful changes to exit exam requirements more broadly.”

Indeed, the changes are part of a wider effort by policymakers over the past two years to ease graduation requirements.

But others are worried the new rules will lower the quality of the education a student with disabilities would receive.

“Teachers are going to try to push students there, and now we’ve lowered the bar,” said Mark Anderson, a special education teacher at a Bronx middle school.

Todd Kaminsky, a state senator who pushed for the new graduation requirements, said the change isn’t about watering down standards, but paving the way for more appropriate, “project-based” measures for students who struggle to meet graduation requirements.

“There are ways to show potential and demonstrate [proficiency] without taking a test,” he said.

“Is there an implementation concern? Yes,” he added. “But I’m confident it’ll be carried out.”

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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.