special needs

Want to keep school vouchers out of Tennessee? You’re too late

IEA is the acronym for the Individualized Education Act, the new Tennessee voucher law that takes effect in 2017 and provides students with certain disabilities with public money to pay for private education-related services.

While Tennessee’s legislature is engulfed in a contentious debate over whether to create a school voucher system, the state actually already has a voucher law in place that could impact even more students than under the bill being discussed.

Last year, the legislature passed a bill that allows the families of students with certain disabilities to receive public money to pay for physical therapy, private schooling, online learning and other eligible “education-related services.”

If approved, the voucher bill making headlines eventually could impact up to 20,000 low-income students annually in the state’s worst schools. Meanwhile, the existing voucher law has the potential to impact up to 22,000 disabled students each year in a demographic that crosses social, geographic and economic boundaries.

Known as the Individualized Education Act, or IEA, the law is scheduled to be implemented next January, and state officials have been working through all the details since Gov. Bill Haslam signed the legislation last spring. On Friday, the State Board of Education will cast its final vote on rules proposed by the State Department of Education to implement and oversee the program.

Under the law, families with a child with eligible disabilities can choose to receive an average of $6,000 annually in a special savings account to pay for services. But if they opt for the money, they must waive rights and protections granted under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, which mandates that all students receive a “free and appropriate” public education, even if they are disabled.

As the measure moved through the legislature last year, special education advocates expressed concern that, in accepting the vouchers, families might not realize that they are waiving their federal rights under IDEA. So part of the work in implementing the law has been directed toward that concern. Under the proposed rules, parents would have to sign a contract with the Department of Education that includes a line stating that parents have received and read the rights that they are waiving.

Another concern is that parents won’t realize that the amount provided under the IEA voucher program is likely a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of private services.

"(Parents) need to understand if they take this and go to some private school and use it toward that, they're waiving their rights."Sherry Wilds, Disability Rights Tennessee

“It continues to be the concern that most of the disabilities that qualify are the high-cost disabilities and that is not going to scratch the surface of meeting their needs,” said Sherry Wilds, a senior attorney with Disability Rights Tennessee, which participated in the rulemaking. “(Parents) need to understand if they take this and go to some private school and use it toward that, they’re waiving their rights.”

Proponents, however, hail the new law as empowering for parents who say that public schools aren’t providing their disabled children with a high-quality customized education.

The new law ordered that advocates such as Wilds, many of whom didn’t agree with or have reservations about the IEA, be enlisted by the state to develop rules for the program.

“We really wanted feedback from people who work with these parents on a daily basis,” said Rebecca Wright, the state’s IEA director.

Among rules that have had to be worked out: deciding who gets the money, what services they can spend it on, and how the state will keep track of the spending. A lack of accountability and oversight are common criticisms to existing special education voucher programs.

“We need some accountability measures in place,” Wright said. “We need to make sure these are quality providers.”

Tennessee’s law was drafted by the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a think tank started in 2008 by former Florida governor and current Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush. It sailed easily through the legislature, with sponsors promising that it could transform the lives of students with severe special needs such as Down syndrome and autism.

In leading the effort to implement the IEA, Wright and her staff looked at other states with similar programs — namely Florida and Arizona.

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The oldest and best known special-education voucher initiative is Florida’s McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities, established in 1999 under Bush. That program — in which money can only be used for private schools — has dealt with accountabilty issues, including students using the money to go to private schools that don’t have full-time special education teachers. Even so, a proposal to expand the program appears to be on the fast track for passage in Florida’s legislature.

Wright said Tennessee is trying to learn from other states’ successes and mistakes.

“We don’t have anything to model it on,” Wright said. “It’s wrapping your head around how all the different pieces. How do we get each one into place by the time it needs to be to ensure that parents and students have a good experience?”

You can see the Department of Education’s overview of the IEA here.

Editors Note: This story is corrected with the proper name of “Disability Rights Tennessee,” which had previously been misidentified.

Overhaul Efforts

The entire staffs at two troubled New York City high schools must reapply for their jobs

Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke in 2015 with Automotive High School Principal Caterina Lafergola, who later left the school. Automotive is one of eight schools where teachers have had to reapply for their jobs in recent years.Now, teachers at two more schools will have to do the same. (Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

In a bid to jumpstart stalled turnaround efforts, the entire staffs at two troubled high schools will have to reapply for their jobs — an aggressive intervention that in the past has resulted in major staff shake-ups.

The teachers, guidance counselors, social workers and paraprofessionals at Flushing High School in Queens and DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx will have to re-interview for their positions beginning next spring, education department officials said Thursday, the same day that staffers learned of the plan. Meanwhile, Flushing Principal Tyee Chin, who has clashed bitterly with teachers there, has been ousted; his replacement will take over Friday, officials said. (DeWitt Clinton’s principal will stay on.)

Both schools are part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature “Renewal” program for low-performing schools, but have struggled to hit their improvement targets. They are also under state pressure to make significant gains or face consequences, leading to speculation that the rehiring is meant partly to buy the city more time before the state intervenes. (Last year, Flushing was the only school out of two-dozen on a state list of low-achieving city schools not to meet its turnaround goals.)

“Having a strong leader and the right team of teachers is essential to a successful school,” Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement, “and this re-staffing process is the necessary next step in the work to turnaround these schools.”

The staffing change stems from an agreement between the de Blasio administration and the city teachers union, who have agreed to the same process for eight other schools since 2014. Among the six schools that went through the process last year, nearly half of the staff members left — either because they were not rehired or they chose not to reapply.

As part of the deal, hiring decisions will be made by committees at each school comprised of the principals and an equal number of union and city appointees. Unlike when former Mayor Michael Bloomberg attempted to overhaul bottom-ranked schools by replacing their principals and at least half of their teachers, these committees can choose to hire as many or as few of the current teachers as they choose.

In the past, the city has placed teachers who were not retained through the rehiring process in other schools — a move that drew criticism for overriding principals’ authority to choose their own staffs. City officials would not provide details about the arrangement for Flushing or Clinton other than to say that the education department would help teachers who left the schools find new placements.

The education department “will work with each teacher to ensure they have a year-long position at a school next year,” spokesman Michael Aciman said in an email.

Both high schools have already endured a destabilizing amount of turnover: Since 2013, more than half the teachers at both schools have left, according to the teachers union. And Flushing’s incoming principal, Ignazio Accardi, an official in the department’s Renewal office, is the sixth in six years.

The school’s outgoing principal, Tyee Chin, had a brief and troubled tenure.

Last year — his first on the job — he wrote a letter to his staff describing a toxic environment that he called “the Hunger Games for principals,” where he said some teachers keep up a “war cry” for a new leader. Meanwhile, the teachers union lodged a discrimination complaint against Chin with a state board, alleging that he threatened to press “racism and harassment” charges against the school’s union representative simply for carrying out her duties, said United Federation of Teachers Vice President of High Schools Janella Hinds.

“Principal Chin came in with an attitude that wasn’t collaborative or supportive,” Hinds said. “We’re dealing with a school community that has had a long list of principals who were not collaborative.”

Chin’s departure comes after DeWitt Clinton’s previous principal, Santiago Taveras, who also sparred with teachers, was removed last year after city investigators found he had changed student grades. He was replaced by Pierre Orbe, who will remain in his position.

The education department will host recruitment events during the spring and summer to bring in teacher applicants, who will be screened by the schools’ staffing committees, officials said.

However, it may be difficult to find seasoned teachers willing to take on such challenging jobs.

When the teachers at Brooklyn’s long-struggling Automotive High School were forced to reapply for their jobs in 2015, the majority left. Many of their replacements were rookies, said then-principal Caterina Lafergola.

“Many of the schools that are going through the rehiring have a stigma attached to them,” she said last year. “It’s very hard to recruit strong candidates.”

Not long after, Lafergola left the school, too.

Future of Schools

For Indianapolis principals hoping to improve, one program says practice makes perfect

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A kindergarten student reaches for crayons during a lesson at Global Prep Academy.

Mariama Carson has spent 20 years as an educator, first as a teacher and now as principal of Global Prep Academy. But in all that time, she never found training that prepared her as well as what she learned over two weeks last summer.

Carson, along with 23 other Indianapolis school leaders, was chosen to be a fellow in a principal training program through the Relay Graduate School of Education. Almost immediately, she noticed a big difference from previous coaching she’d had: They practiced everything.

How do you teach kids the right way to walk in the hallway? They practiced it. How do you let a teacher know she’s struggling? They practiced it. What are the precise words to use in an evaluation? More practice.

“The commitment to practice is what has been so different,” Carson said. “Whatever we learn in Relay … it’s not just something someone has told you about. You’ve practiced it. You’ve lived it.”

Relay, a six-year-old New York-based organization, was founded by a cadre of leaders from high-performing charter school networks. Practice, role-playing and applied learning are at the center of their work with educators, which for five years has included a year-long principal fellowship.

In the 2016-17 school year, Relay trained about 400 school leaders in the United States. Fellows from Indianapolis were chosen and sponsored by The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit. Joe White, who directs The Mind Trust’s school support initiatives, said he was happy with the response during the last round of applications. The next cohort, whose members will be announced this month, will be larger and contain more Indianapolis Public School educators, as well as charter school principals, he said.

The Mind Trust wants to make the training “available to as many new operators as possible to continue expanding this work across the city,” White said. “We think that this is the way that we create sustainable schools that will provide high-quality results and outcomes for kids for a very long time.”

Two principals in the midst of the program told Chalkbeat that the fellowship is already changing the culture and efficiency of their schools. The principals spent the fellowship’s two-week summer training session in Denver learning how to best collect and analyze student data, give feedback to teachers and create a school building that runs smoothly.

“The practice and critical feedback we got was unlike anything I’d ever experienced,” said Mariama Carson, a principal at Global Prep Academy, which is housed in the IPS Riverside 44 building. “Usually as a principal, you don’t get that kind of feedback.”

But Relay, which also has teacher training programs, has its share of critics. Kenneth Zeichner, a researcher and professor at the University of Washington, analyzed non-university-affiliated teacher training programs, including Relay’s. Although he hasn’t looked into the principal program specifically, he said he is troubled that the teacher training curriculum emphasizes using test scores to gauge results at the expense of a more well-rounded assessment of students, who many times are coming from families living in poverty.

He also worries Relay as a whole is too focused on fast growth, rather than on proving its methods work. There have been no independent studies done on whether Relay produces better teachers than other alternative or university programs, Zeichner said, although one is underway.

“My concern about Relay is not that they exist,” Zeichner said. “If you’re going to measure the quality of a teacher education program — of any program — the independent vetting, or review, of claims about evidence (is) a baseline minimum condition.”

Chalkbeat spoke with Carson and Bakari Posey, principal at IPS School 43. The two just completed their second of several training sessions, which will continue through the rest of the school year.

Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

What made you want to be part of the fellowship?

Carson: The job of a principal is so lonely. To have the opportunity to work with high-quality, hard-working principals across the country is always inviting.

Posey: I wanted to make sure that I was able to appropriately and efficiently and effectively develop the people on our team. That’s what really drew me in. It’s shaped my thinking and sharpened my lens as a leader and what I’m looking for in classrooms.

What have you learned so far that you’re implementing in your school?

Carson: It’s been transformative in how our building is run just on the cultural side. Relay has really helped us understand that especially with adult learners, you have to start with the “why.” And then we model, and the teachers (in my school) play the position as students. We go into full acting mode, and then the teachers execute that practice. For two weeks before the kids even showed up, that’s what our teachers were doing. Normally, I’d hand my teachers a packet of procedures and expectations, but we never practiced.

Posey: We’ve started to implement already … around coaching teachers — how we give that feedback and give teachers bite-sized action steps to work on instead of making a list of 12 things to do at once. If you do one thing better every single day, then you get better overall. Something else that’s big for me is student work exemplars — actually having an example of excellence for student work that the teacher creates and uses to guide feedback. Overall it’s just kind of helped to organize my thinking as a school leader and really kind of give you a little bit of a road map towards student growth and overall school success. It’s the best professional development I’ve ever been a part of.

How have teachers back in your schools responded to the changes you have introduced, including suggestions on improving instruction, evaluations, etc.?

Carson: Teachers have been responding well, and they’re getting used to this culture, a culture of practice. Even in our feedback sessions where we’re coaching teachers, it’s “OK, execute the lesson — I’ll be the student, you be the teacher.”

Posey: They’ve been receptive. It’s not coming from a place of “gotcha” or I’m trying to make you look really bad. It’s really coming from a place of really getting better for our students to really give them the best, which is what they deserve.