CSI New York

Will you close my school? Transfer school staff, parents and students worry about the new federal education law

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A class at Brooklyn Frontiers High School, a transfer school

Jamie Hawkins marched to the front of a Brooklyn auditorium Tuesday night holding two pieces of paper.

One had information from her son’s Individualized Education Program, which showed that when he entered high school, he read at a second-grade level and did math at a sixth-grade level. The other, she said proudly, proved he graduated from high school.

The reason her son finished school is he attended Brooklyn Frontiers High School, she said, one of several schools in New York City designed specifically for students who have fallen behind.

“He got the skills that he needed,” she explained after her testimony. When asked if he would have graduated without Brooklyn Frontiers she said, “No. Absolutely not.”

Students, teachers and parents from the city’s transfer high schools — which serve students who are over-age and under-credited — crowded into the Prospect Heights Educational Campus on Tuesday for a hearing on the Every Student Succeeds Act, which they fear will treat their schools unfairly.

These schools present a conundrum for state officials. The new law requires that schools with graduation rates under 67 percent are targeted for improvement. But for transfer schools, many people testified at the hearing, that is often an unrealistic standard.

“The language of this legislation, the ESSA legislation, puts our schools in grave danger,” said Rachel Forsyth, director of partnership schools at Good Shepherd Services, a nonprofit that works in multiple transfer schools.

So what will happen to transfer schools under New York’s draft ESSA plan? Are they really in danger? Here’s what we found out:

What does the plan currently say?

The state’s draft plan does not separate the way it evaluates transfer schools from how it judges traditional high schools — but it does gives all high schools some wiggle room.

Instead of using on-time (four-year) graduation rates, the state allows six-year graduation rates in its draft plan. That might not be enough for transfer schools, though. The average six-year graduation rate for transfer schools is 46.7 percent.

If a school does not meet a six-year graduation rate of 67 percent, it will be identified as a school that needs improvement.

Can the state make an exception for transfer schools under the law?

The state says all high schools have to reach a 67 percent graduation rate. Based on information the state’s education department has received from the U.S. Department of Education, there is no exemption for transfer high schools, state officials said.

But advocates say the law offers more leeway. Under the regulations approved by former U.S. Education Secretary John King, schools that serve special populations — such as alternative schools — were permitted to use different metrics than traditional high schools.

Those regulations have been undone by Congress, but the fact that they existed before shows the law allows that flexibility, said Ian Rosenblum, executive director of EdTrust-NY.

“We believe that the state can and should propose a different methodology for identifying specialized schools, such as transfer schools,” Rosenblum said.

What will happen if transfer schools are identified for improvement?

At one point during the hearing, a transfer school advocate gestured to the crowd and declared that if this plan moves forward, all the transfer schools represented in the room would soon cease to exist.

That is very unlikely to come to pass. Even if a school is identified as needing improvement, it would probably be several years before it could face any serious consequences under the new law, according to the state’s draft.

If a school is identified for Comprehensive School Improvement (CSI), it has three years to receive extra support and to implement an improvement plan. Then, it could be put into the state’s receivership program, which means it would likely have another two years to demonstrate improvement. If it does not demonstrate enough improvement, it risks being taken over by an outside receiver.

The state has already proven itself lenient in forcing an independent receiver on schools. So far, only one school in New York state has been threatened with takeover. According to state officials, once schools are in receivership, the state education commissioner has some flexibility in tracking their progress and determining whether schools should still be deemed struggling.

Still, any threat looms large for transfer schools, whose advocates say even if the worst-case scenario never plays out, they are still being rated by unfair metrics.

“We’re already working with kids who have been told repeatedly they are failures. Now we’re looking at a system where 90 percent of the [transfer] schools in the city will be looked at as failing schools,” Forsyth said. “I don’t think it’s really understanding the population we’re working with.”

State officials said they are aware of these concerns and will work to come up with a solution.

try try again

Feds to Colorado: You must count students who opt out of standardized tests

Seniors at Fairview High School in Boulder protested a standardized test in November 2014. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado’s policy of not penalizing schools that fail to meet federal requirements for student participation in state tests isn’t going over well with the federal government.

The U.S. Department of Education told state officials in a letter Friday that the policy is not acceptable. Colorado faces losing millions in federal funding if it doesn’t change course.

Federal officials flagged the opt-out policy in a response to the state’s plan to comply with the nation’s new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The federal government’s feedback to states is being closely watched for signs of how the department, under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, enforces a law that was meant to shift more decision-making away from the federal government and back to states.

“It didn’t come as a surprise,” Pat Chapman, the Colorado Department of Education’s executive director of federal programs, said of the feedback. “There’s a need to reconcile state board, state legislature and federal requirements and policies.”

In 2015, Colorado became a national epicenter for the testing opt-out movement, with thousands of students refusing to take state-required tests they didn’t see as valuable.

The State Board of Education, reasoning that it wasn’t fair to punish schools for something not in their control, adopted a policy forbidding the state education department from lowering schools’ quality ratings or otherwise punishing them for high refusal rates.

Previously, schools and districts could have seen their quality ratings lowered if they failed to annually test 95 percent of students in math and English. Schools that receive the state’s lowest quality ratings for five consecutive years face state intervention.

Education Commissioner Katy Anthes is expected to brief the state board at its regularly scheduled meeting this week on possible responses. The state has until Aug. 24 to submit a revised state plan or ask for an extension.

State board Chairwoman Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat, said Monday she doesn’t expect the board to take any formal action on rethinking the board’s policy this week. She declined to elaborate further.

“The board should have an opportunity to talk about this before I publicly comment,” she said.

Board member Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican who championed the policy, also held back Monday.

“I’m not sure what all the options available are,” he said. “We’ll wait and see what the staff’s analysis is and go from there.”

The state’s unique opt-out policy wasn’t the federal government’s only criticism.

The U.S. Department of Education also raised concern about the state’s long-term academic goals, using an average of test scores to determine school quality and monitoring how well students are learning English as a second language.

The federal department is asking the state to resubmit long-term academic goals for particular student groups, including different ethnic groups and students with disabilities.

In the current version of the plan, all student groups are expected to have the same average test score in six years, which is slightly higher than the state’s current average. The goals seem confusing and unattainable. For example, students with disabilities would need to make unprecedented progress, while Asian students would need to lose academic ground in order for the state to meet its targets.

As part of its plan, Colorado also proposed rating schools based on averages from English and math test scores, not how many students met grade-level proficiency as it did in the past.

While the use of average test scores was applauded by some, it isn’t flying with the federal education department. It wants Colorado to better explain how using average scores relates to measuring whether students are at grade level.

Moreover, U.S. officials want an assurance from Colorado that students who are far above grade-level won’t “overcompensate” for students who are not proficient. In other words, the department wants to make sure high-performers aren’t masking serious problems.

Dale Chu, vice president of policy and operations for America Succeeds, a nonprofit of business leaders that support education reform, helped a coalition of education groups review state plans independently of U.S. education department. The group, the Collaborative For Student Success, was critical of Colorado’s switch to using an average of test scores.

“There’s no sense of proficiency,” he said. “There has to be some sort of sense that kids are coming out school being able to read and compute and be on a successful path.”

Finally, the U.S. education department is also seeking more clarity on how the state is tracking the progress of students learning English as a second language. It said the state needs to provide a clear timeline on when it can provide specific goals and more detail about how the state will use data to determine school quality.

Chapman said the state education department did not have the data available to provide the federal government the information it needed. However, that’s changing and he expects that portion of the plan to be accepted.

The Every Student Succeeds Act was signed by President Barack Obama in 2015. The law required states to develop plans to outline how it would use federal dollars to improve schools, teacher quality and boost language proficiency for students learning English as a second language.

Pushback from the U.S. education department to states has been more stern than many education policy observers expected given DeVos’s support of school choice and local control.

Chapman said the federal department has been helpful.

“They’re asked to uphold the letter of the law, he said. “I do think they’re approaching it in anyway that they’re being helpful to states to write a plan that’s consistent with statue.”

awarding leaders

Meet the nine finalists for Tennessee Principal of the Year

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: Docia Generette-Walker receives Tennessee's 2016 principal of the year honor from Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. Generette-Walker leads Middle College High School in Memphis. This year's winner will be announced in October.

Nine school leaders are up for an annual statewide award, including one principal from Memphis.

Tracie Thomas, a principal at White Station Elementary School, represents schools in Shelby County on the state’s list of finalists. Last year, Principal Docia Generette-Walker of Middle College High School in Memphis received the honor.

Building better principals has been a recent focus for Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen as roles of the school leaders change under school improvement efforts.

“Successful schools begin with great leaders, and these nine finalists represent some of the best in our state,” McQueen said. “The Principal of the Year finalists have each proven what is possible when school leaders hold students and educators to high expectations.”

The winner will be announced at the state department’s annual banquet in October, where the winner of Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year will also be announced.

The finalists are:

West Tennessee

  • Tracie Thomas, White Station Elementary, Shelby County Schools
  • Stephanie Coffman, South Haven Elementary, Henderson County School District
  • Linda DeBerry, Dyersburg City Primary School, Dyersburg City Schools

Middle Tennessee

  • Kenneth “Cam” MacLean, Portland West Middle School, Sumner County Schools
  • John Bush, Marshall County High School, Marshall County Schools
  • Donnie Holman, Rickman Elementary School, Overton County Schools

East Tennessee

  • Robin Copp, Ooltewah High School, Hamilton County Schools
  • Jeff Harshbarger, Norris Middle School, Anderson County Schools
  • Carol McGill, Fairmont Elementary School, Johnson City Schools