parent voice

Anxious parents challenge de Blasio’s school safety efforts in wake of Bronx killing

PHOTO: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña speak with parent leaders about school safety at the Harry Belafonte Library in October.

Less than a week after a stabbing in a Bronx school left one student dead and another seriously injured, parents grilled Mayor Bill de Blasio at a public forum on his safety policies and what he is doing to control violence in their schools.

One by one, parents at a Harlem forum on Monday stood to question the mayor and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña: Would the city deploy more school psychologists? How can parents get better information on the safety of their schools? What happens if the police department’s school safety agents are not effective in patrolling a school?

The meeting, which was sometimes tense, was the first time the pair publicly heard from parents in the aftermath of the first student killing inside a school building in nearly 25 years.

“Anyone who’s had a child in our schools felt that moment very deeply,” de Blasio said in his opening remarks. “People all over the city want to know that every action is being taken.”

The killing at the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation comes at a sensitive moment for de Blasio, who is running for reelection and has faced a drumbeat of criticism for school discipline reforms that discourage suspensions and other punitive responses to student misbehavior. On Monday, de Blasio repeatedly reassured a group of parent leaders — including PTA presidents and community education council members — acknowledging their concerns about school safety without retreating from his own policies.

Some systems across the country are wrestling with school discipline reforms, with the debate largely split between those who advocate for strict discipline and those, like the mayor, who believe that such policies are imposed much more harshly on students of color and fail to address underlying problems.

Building on de Blasio’s emphasis on “restorative” approaches, all schools will hold weekly trainings for the next three weeks to reinforce de-escalation and anti-bullying strategies, Chancellor Fariña said, and will also receive refreshers on how to appropriately report cases of bullying.

Officials said those training materials are still being created and details will be distributed to schools this week. “This will go a long way in reinforcing what we’ve already put in place,” Fariña said.

But Gigs Taylor-Stephenson, a parent who attended the forum, expressed skepticism that additional training would be enough. Taylor-Stephenson, the PTA president at Manhattan’s Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing & Visual Arts — a school in the city’s Renewal turnaround program — said she has seen training have little effect in the past.

People go to training, and sign up,” she said in an interview, referring to one program designed to help staff welcome parents and get them involved in the school. “But they don’t implement it in schools.”

Throughout the morning, de Blasio appeared to be particularly sensitive to concerns that schools might not immediately respond to reports of bullying — a criticism that has emerged at the Wildlife Conservation school.

“We very much are sending a message but we will send it even more rigorously to everyone in the school community: Never ignore an instance of bullying,” de Blasio said. If parents have a concern about school safety, he later added, “they got to know who to talk to and we have to do a better job of making that go-to person available.”

The mayor did not offer new facts about last week’s stabbing, and said the public should hold off on drawing conclusions until the investigation is complete. Before a student was killed, parents at that school said there had been breakdowns in school safety, and officials had failed to properly respond to incidents of bullying. After the stabbing, frustrated parents confronted school safety officers who refused to let them in the building or pick up their children.

On Monday, other parents raised concerns that their own student’s schools feel chaotic — and that staff members sometimes struggle to intervene. Speaking at the forum, Renesha Westbrooks-Martinez, a parent at P.S. 45 in Brooklyn, described a visit where she saw students shoving each other and papers strewn across the room. “I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness the teacher has no control,’” she said.

In response, de Blasio said disorderly classrooms are “something we don’t accept,” though Fariña later suggested that “a lot of what happens in classrooms that sometimes can look wild is interactive learning.”

“Certainly, if kids are not being disciplined, or not paying attention, that’s on us,” Fariña added. “But a lot more parents need be aware that we really want to hear a lot more talking in classrooms, we want to hear students talking to each other, working together.”

Speaking with reporters after the forum, Westbrooks-Martinez said what she described was a disorderly classroom, not one where students were learning from each other.

“I know the difference,” she said.

PAYOUT

Douglas County district pays $1.3 million to settle landmark special education case

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The Douglas County School District has paid $1.32 million to settle a long-running special education case brought by a couple who sought reimbursement from the district for their son’s education at a private school for students with autism.

The payment, made to the law firm representing the couple in May, represents the last chapter in a landmark special education case known as Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District. The case lasted for seven years, leading to a 2017 U.S. Supreme Court decision that raised the standard schools must meet in educating students with disabilities.

“The settlement really just eliminates any uncertainty there may have been about the importance of the Endrew F. decision,” said Meghan Whittaker, policy and advocacy manager for the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

She expects the settlement to spur greater awareness about the higher standard and increased public investment in educating students with disabilities.

Jennifer and Joe, the parents of Endrew F., the student at the center of the case, declined to comment on the settlement when reached by email this week.

In February, they said their attorney had reached out to school district officials numerous times over the years with offers to talk and potentially settle the case out of court, but that the district rejected those overtures.

Chalkbeat requested the 2-page settlement agreement under the Colorado Open Records Act, but district officials declined to provide it, citing a confidentiality agreement between the two parties.

The seeds of the Endrew F. case were planted about a decade ago when Jennifer and Joe pulled Endrew, then a fourth-grader, out of his Douglas County elementary school after years of stalled educational progress. They placed him at a specialized school in Denver — Firefly Autism House — where they saw immediate improvements. Tuition at the school is more than $70,000 a year.

In 2011, Jennifer and Joe sued the school district for tuition reimbursement, arguing that Endrew had not received a fair and appropriate education in Douglas County schools as required by federal law. Three courts ruled against the family before the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

Throughout the case, Jennifer and Joe asked that their last name not be used to protect their family’s privacy.

While the unanimous 2017 U.S. Supreme Court ruling was hailed as a momentous decision with enormous significance for millions of students with disabilities across the country, it kicked the question of whether the district should repay the family for years of private school back to the lower court.

In February, a federal judge ruled that the district owed the family for tuition and legal costs. According to district officials, the district reached an agreement for the $1.32 million payment on April 19 with the school board’s authority. The money came out of the district’s general fund.

In recent months, public and private groups have released new resources to help school district leaders and parents understand and act on the Endrew F. decision. In December, the U.S. Department of Education put out a nine-page Q&A on the topic.

In early 2018, the National Center for Learning Disabilities put out the Endrew F. Advocacy Toolkit for parents. The downloadable toolkit, which has been accessed 30,000 times so far, outlines the process for advocating for students with disabilities and improving their individualized learning plans.

Whittaker said the Endrew F. settlement signals to both parents and school officials the importance of working together to craft such plans.

“The focus here needs to not be on future cases and parents suing school districts but providing students with the services they need now,” she said.

Read more about Joe and Jennifer’s long journey to the Supreme Court here and their frustration at being portrayed as a school choice success story by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy Devos here.

it's official

An integration plan is approved for Upper West Side and Harlem middle schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Middle schools in District 3, including Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing Visual Arts, pictured above, will give struggling students priority in admission, the local Community Education Council announced.

The New York City education department on Wednesday approved a plan to integrate middle schools in Manhattan’s District 3, the culmination of years of advocacy amid vocal pushback against admissions changes aimed at creating more economically and academically diverse schools.

The plan marks the city’s first attempt under Mayor Bill de Blasio to integrate middle schools across an entire district, an effort that garnered national attention after the schools Chancellor, Richard Carranza, tweeted a blunt criticism of parents who protested the proposal.

Announcing approval of the plan, Carranza said in a statement that he hopes District 3 will serve as a model for other communities aiming for more diversity.

“Students benefit from integrated schools, and I applaud the District 3 community on taking this step to integrate their middle schools,” he said.

The new admissions system builds on growing momentum to unravel deep segregation in the country’s largest school system. A few weeks ago, de Blasio announced a contentious plan to overhaul admissions at the city’s elite specialized high schools. And later on Wednesday,  a set of recommendations is expected to be unveiled for integrating middle schools in Brooklyn’s District 15.

Under the plan approved in District 3, students who are poor, struggle on state tests, and earn low report card grades will be given admissions priority for a quarter of seats at the district’s middle schools. Of those seats, 10 percent would go to students who struggle the most, and 15 percent would go to the next-neediest group.

Education officials had considered weighing a number of different criteria to determine which students would get priority. They settled on a mix indicators including student poverty and academic achievement because it “identifies students most likely to suffer the consequences of long-term segregation in District 3,” according to a statement released by the Community Education Council, a group of parent volunteers who have supported the district’s integration efforts. 

Since academic performance is often linked to race and class, the new admissions system could integrate schools on a number of different measures. But in aiming for academic diversity explicitly, the district is pushing for a unique and controversial change. In District 3 and across New York City, high-performing students are often concentrated in a tiny subset of schools.

Parents who worried their children would be elbowed out of the most selective schools pushed hard against the plan, including a woman featured on a viral NY1 video saying that the proposal tells hard-working students “life sucks.”  

“I think it was definitely a much harder concept for parents to understand,” said Kristen Berger, a parent on the local Community Education Council who has helped lead the integration effort.  “We have a lot of talk about meritocracy… anything that challenges it, challenges a very basic concept parents have.”

With those concerns in mind, the district says it will boost training for school staff in strategies to help struggling students. The district will also provide anti-bias training for all middle school staff and teachers will also focus on culturally relevant education practices, which ensure that all students are reflected in what is taught in classrooms.

Despite the backlash, the proposal would actually have a modest impact on many district schools, according to city projections. Among the schools expected to change the most is the Computer School, which would see a 16-point increase in the number of needy students who are offered admission. Still, only 28 percent of students would be poor and have low test scores and report card grades.  

Schools that currently serve the greatest number of struggling students aren’t expected to change much, if at all, according to projections. Many of those schools are in Harlem, prompting education council members to push the department to do more for those schools.

The council pledged to take on the work itself. Parents want to weigh whether new school options are needed, and “address long-standing challenges such as disparities in resource allocation,” the council’s statement said.

“We need a Harlem vision. That’s really important and that’s key to the next steps,” Berger said.