Friday, March 24, 2017

News from Camden: All Schools Must Rise and So This One Must Close

This week Camden Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard announced that Charles Sumner Elementary School, which serves 210 K-6 students and employs 57 staff members, will close at the end of this school year.

School closings are hard on communities. But this one is a no-brainer.

First, academic performance is dismal, despite multiple interventions and total cost per pupil of $25,027.  Only three percent of students reached proficiency in language arts and math, according to the district’s Information Card, which earns it the lowest possible grade of “underperforming." The annual community survey reveals that only thirty-two percent of students consider the building safe and fewer than half the staff believes that the school supports “overall instructional quality,”  The building itself was constructed in 1926 and lacks many of the amenities of newer facilities; it’s also subject to recurring flooding.

Students were leaving anyway. At one point the school enrolled 500 students but parents voted with their feet, sending them to higher-performing traditional, charter, or hybrid charter/district schools.

Where will the remaining kids go? From today’s Philadelphia Inquirer:
Students enrolled in Sumner will be guaranteed seats at Cream, [district spokesman Brendan] Lowe said, as well as at one of two public-charter hybrid “Renaissance” schools, Camden Prep or KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, but the district will work with families on deciding which of the city’s schools is best for each student. Officials also hope to move many of Sumner’s 57 full-time staff members with the Sumner students, Lowe said.
The community is aware of Sumner’s failings through the district’s new emphasis on transparency, which includes much outreach from Superintendent Rouhanifard. And district officials have been working to ensure that the old Sumner site doesn’t become another vacant lot in the Liberty Park section of the city; they’ve already reached out to local groups, including renaissance schools that may need more space.

All in all, a win for students, parents, and academic improvement in New Jersey's most troubled school district..

There's another school is in its last year in the city: Camden Community Charter School, which currently enrolls 679 student in grades K-8. Acting Commissioner Kimberly Harrington wrote in a letter to the school’s board that “ the school is not offering its students a high-quality education,” that instruction “was focused on the acquisition of factual knowledge rather that the application of knowledge to investigate problems,” and classrooms were characterized by “low levels of student engagement and disruptive behavior.”

While student performance at the charter was higher than Sumner -- student proficiency rates are 13% to 15% -- charter school are subject to higher degrees of accountability in exchange for higher degrees of autonomy. (The school is also one of N.J.’s two for-profit charters; the other one, run by the same managing group  CSMI, has another school in Atlantic City. We like our charters non-profit in New Jersey.)

Like at Sumner, Camden Community Charter students will have access through Camden’s universal enrollment system to traditional schools, renaissance schools, and old-fashioned charters.  “As difficult as a school closure is, I truly believe both students and staff will be better situated next year,” said Superintendent Rouhanifard.“This will put them on a better track.”

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Newark Public Schools: We Are "Hampered" By LIFO Laws that Privilege Adults Over Children.

Defendant admits to the allegations contained in Paragraph 12 of the Complaint in part. Defendants declare that the District Schools are making great strides towards to meet the constitutionally-mandated Thorough and Effective education requirements for all schools in the District. Through no fault of its own, however, and even without additional cuts to the District's funding, the District has been hampered by statutory restrictions that essentially protect the interests of adults over the rights of the children of Newark. As New Jersey's Courts have recognized, we must do everything we can to create an environment where these children can learn effectively to create a pathway to success in school and in life. The most important way to make that happen is to ensure that we are able to retain our best teachers in the Newark Public Schools.

That's from the latest court filing from Newark Public Schools in HG v. Harrington, the lawsuit pressed by six Newark mothers who are challenging the constitutionality of New Jersey's quality-blind lay-off system, also known as LIFO, or "last in, first out."  According to a press release issued today by Partnership for Educational Justice, "Newark’s answer includes admissions that overwhelmingly concede the allegations put forward by the plaintiffs. This filing is significant for two reasons: 1) the district admits that New Jersey’s LIFO law causes harm to students and 2) these admissions undermine the credibility of motions to dismiss the lawsuit filed by the teachers’ unions, who intervened as defendants in the case in December 2016."

In other words, Newark Public Schools' legal counsel just conceded that the practice of LIFO, which forbids local districts from dismissing tenured teachers based on effectiveness of instruction and requires that districts dismiss teachers during lay-offs based solely on time served, hurts children and deprives them of their constitutional rights. No wonder that N.J. is one of only ten states that adhere to this archaic and unprofessional form of staffing schools.

The press release also lists the following admissions made by Newark Public Schools:

  • NPS admits that laying off teachers without any consideration of their quality prohibits children from being educated in the constitutionally mandated manner (paragraph 14)
  • NPS admits that enforcement of LIFO in Newark will remove quality teachers, which leads to lower test scores, lower high school grad rates, lower college attendance rates, and sharply reduced lifetime earnings (paragraph 104)
  • NPS admits that its current practice of keeping ineffective teachers on the district payroll, including those in a pool of “educators without placement schools” (EWPS), is harmful and unsustainable (paragraphs 80-81) and that the EWPS pool would be wholly unnecessary were it not for LIFO (paragraph 89)
  • NPS admits that LIFO undermines its ability to attract and retain effective teachers (paragraphs 96-103)
  • NPS notes that the statutes governing termination proceedings for tenured teachers do not address the impact of quality-blind layoffs on students through the retention of low-performing teachers in times of budget cuts (paragraph 93)

We all know this, right? For a district under fiscal strain and falling enrollment, budget cuts and lay-offs are inevitable. And because of LIFO these lay-offs will be determined robotically, without regard for educator talent and skill. Sure, we have a limp form of teacher evaluations based on student outcomes, but one in which only 2% of teachers were labeled "ineffective."  So Newark Public Schools is obliged to maintain a rubber room for teachers whom no principal would hire (the EWPS), obliged to retain low-performing teachers, and obliged to deprive children of their constitutional rights to an effective education.

I admire Newark Public Schools for its honest admissions. I live in hope that New Jersey will join  forty other states and relieve children and families of the burden of a tenure system that privileges adult job retention rights over the effective education of Newark's children.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Jonah and the Whale

Call me Ishmael.

Excuse the melodrama but right now my husband and I feel like we’re about to embark on a dark, god-less, soul-crushing journey. Our son Jonah (whom I’ve written about before) just turned 21 and  will age out of the school system this year. Parents of children with disabilities call this milestone  “falling off a cliff.”

The cliff in question is the cessation of Jonah’s rights, inscribed in federal law, for services that nurture his development, education, and relative independence. For eighteen years he’s been cradled within the sheltering arms of laws and regulations that protect children with disabilities: the right to a free education within the least restrictive environment, the right to therapies that foster his ability to learn, and the right to “transition” services, like the job-training program he attends right now.

But on June 20th, the last day of the school year in my Central New Jersey school district, a gong is rung and Jonah’s rights are sucked into the black undertow of the Division of Developmental Disabilities (DDD). We thought that navigating special education services was arduous. However, after months of trying to decode the hieroglyphics of adult services, we realize that our family’s trip through Jonah’s school years was a just a day at the beach. The source of the current danger, of course, isn’t a white whale. It’s the lack of federal regulation and accountability that allow states like New Jersey to maintain twelve-year waiting lists for residential placement and that require parents to master the arcana of Comprehensive Assessment Tools, Support Coordinator Agencies, Care Management, Medicaid eligibility, ad nauseum. Truly, ad nauseum.

If you’ll excuse the digression, our family’s circumstances (which we share with all parents of young adults with disabilities unless they happen to be as rich as Midas) reminds me of the Senate’s 50-49 vote earlier this month to eliminate the accountability regulations for the  Obama Administration’s reauthorized federal education law called the Every Student Succeeds Act.  Hence, states are now free to count students’ progress any which way and build meaningless rating systems for schools. Critics, according to PoliticsK12,  charge that this endrun around accountability will “endanger crucial protections for disadvantaged students.”

Senator Patty Murray (D-Washington), who helped craft ESSA, said that the Obama regulations provided “clarity on accountability, on reporting requirements, and on state plan requirements. And it helps ensure that no student, no matter where they live, can fall through those cracks...If the rug's pulled out from under these states, there could be chaos.”

Ecce chaos.

Denise Marshall, executive director of The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, bemoaned the rescinding of ESSA regulations, telling Disability Scoop that “we cannot imagine how, without regulation, the Department (of Education) will engender compliance with (the) new statute in 50 states plus territories.”

Yet ESSA survives, albeit nursing a few more tooth extractions. Good for local control addicts, Trumpists, and Tea Party-ers. Bad for historically-disenfranchised kids.

But there’s not even a weak ESSA for adults with disabilities. There’s no safe harbor. There’s no assurance of protection or programming or reasonable timelines for placement in group homes. Of course, denial of necessary services happens all the time in K-12 special education, but at least there are rights and due process and recourse for families and their special needs children.

But not for my twenty-one year-old son whom my husband shaves each morning, not for my six-foot manchild who towers over me as we arrange his bed each night and pick out his clothes for the next day, not for my Jonah, who can fix my computer but can’t figure out the correct change if he wants to buy a soda.

Nakeishia Knox, the Newark mother of a son with autism, told NJ Monthly,
.“What happens when, God forbid…” She stops, unable to complete the sentence. Finally, she says, “We won’t live forever.” Unfortunately, living forever seems to the couple to be the only way they can ensure a happy, productive life for their son. As an autistic young adult, Philip faces an uncertain future. After he ages out of the public education system in 2017, there’s no telling what will await him.
And this, from a couple with more resources at their disposal and some “ins” with DDD:
Peter Bell and his wife were given a list of coordinators to choose from. “But we have absolutely no information to go by as to who’s good, what they offer and what a support coordinator really does,” says Bell. He’d like to think that, as insiders, he and his wife are up on these things, “but even we are intimidated by the process,” he says. 
As my husband and I sift through the DDD material, we find ourselves (with apologies to Melville) going grim around the mouth. It is a damp, drizzly November in our souls. It is a queer time for us in this strange, mixed affair we call life. As parents of a young adult with disabilities navigating an unaccountable sea, we can’t help but take this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof we but dimly discern.

Maybe we should have named him Ishmael.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Hey, Princeton and Save Our Schools-NJ: If You're So Worried About Princeton Charter's Impact on Segregation, Here's a Suggestion

Every week I have a piano lesson in Princeton and so I drive six miles down Route 206 from my home in Lawrence, located smack in the middle between the wealthy college town and impoverished Trenton. As I enter Princeton I pass the Peacock Inn, where the "jacuzzi suite" goes for $660 a night (off-season rate). Then I  bear right on Nassau Street, Princeton's main drag, with ivied Princeton University on my right and a panoply of shops like Brooks Brothers, Ann Taylor, J.Crew, Lulumon, and Ralph Lauren on my left. The median  home value in Princeton  is $806,900 and the average household income is $154,468

This is the town that, in an effort led by Princeton-based Save Our Schools-NJ, is virulently fighting a 76-student expansion to Princeton Charter School. (The D.O.E. approved the expansion last week but the district is appealing the decision.) The traditional school district's first objection is fiscal strain for those extra tuition payments, although it's worth noting that Princeton Regional Public Schools spends $24,634 annually per student. For context, that's $5,000 more than my middle-class, diverse town and even $1,500 more than impoverished Trenton, an Abbott district that, according to the old court rulings, should receive as much compensatory aid as the richest districts.

SOS-NJ and the district's second objection to the charter school's expansion is that the charter increases "segregation," despite the implementation of a lottery weighted for low-income children. Yeah, I know. Words fail me.

But they don't fail Vivek Pai, a Princeton Charter School parent who wrote this letter to a paper called Town Topics. Don't miss the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that decimates the second claim of the anti-choice cadre.

To the Editor: 
I read Cara Carpenito’s letter last week asking other parents to examine their conscience [“PCS Parents Should Examine Their Conscience: Can They Continue to ‘Choose’ a Segregated School,” March 8 Mailbox]. Princeton is a town of unmistakable wealth, with average incomes triple that of our neighbor Trenton. Adding to our schools’ economic and racial segregation, we additionally bus in mostly Caucasian students from wealthy, suburban Cranbury, which is almost as far away as Trenton. Princeton and Cranbury students attend schools that afford privileges out of reach for most Trenton children. To address this issue, I implore the Board of Education to implement a voluntary program where Princeton parents who want to demonstrate their commitment to equality can offer to swap their children’s spots in Princeton schools with children from Trenton. Then, instead of having parents chastise others about segregation, and generating ill will, they can instead lead by example and serve as an inspiration to everyone. 
I also read Lori Weir’s letter about eliminating sibling preference at PCS [“N.J. Commissioner of Education Decision a Case of Taxation Without Representation,” March 8 Mailbox], which even PPS uses in their lottery-based dual-language immersion program. To get some facts about who would be most impacted if siblings were split across schools, I examined the Pew Research Center report on Parenting in America. Across the United States, 33 percent of Caucasian mothers had 3 or more children, and the numbers for other racial groups were Asian (27 percent), African-American (40 percent), and Hispanic (50 percent). If Princeton has similar demographic patterns, eliminating sibling preference would impact African-Americans and Hispanics more than other racial groups. In comparison, the weighted lottery approved for PCS will increase the chances for economically disadvantaged groups. Numerically, the calls to dismantle sibling preference seem counterproductive. In the longer term, neither sibling preference nor a lottery would be needed if PCS were allowed to expand to meet all of the demand for it. 
Vivek Pai
Bertrand Drive

Friday, March 10, 2017

This Is How My Daughter Celebrated International Women's Day

Forgive my self-indulgence on this snowy Friday. My younger daughter Emily is a second-year chemistry and physics teacher at City On A Hill Charter School on Circuit Street in Boston. The students at COAH are 98% minority and 83% low-income. Twenty-four percent are eligible for special education services and 10% are English Language Learners. Student outcomes are stellar; for example, 91% of COAH students scored proficient or advanced proficient in tenth-grade language arts on Massachusetts’ Common Core-aligned standardized assessments and 81% were proficient or advanced proficient in math.

 On Wednesday, in honor of International Women’s Day, Emily switched it up a bit in her physics classes and taught a lesson called “Data on Girls in STEM Classes."  Students were presented with a series of graphs on gender differences in STEM fields. Here’s an example:

Figure 4: Bachelor’s Degrees Earned in Selected Science and Engineering Fields, by Gender, 2007

After analysis and discussion of the graphs, the class read an article called “Are Women Worse at Math? It’s Time to Stop Asking,” followed by this writing prompt:
Reflect: Below, propose one specific step our school, community, or policymakers could take to address the issues facing women and girls in STEM. Why did you choose it? Why is it important?
Here are some student responses:
Start one commercial campaign that demonstrates the excellence that girls can do and how successful they can be. This will fill growing girls with self-esteem to become something greater and achieve more than men.
Schools can take one day to talk about women and their struggles. Educating everyone about women and coming up with alternatives to better women’s futures. It’s important because women are just as important as men.
We could have meetings with the women to talk about the issues going on in society and try to take a stand. 
An idea I have for my school and community is that they should offer more video game-related classes and fields , specifically for women and girls. In the gaming industry it is male-dominated; there’s the stereotype that video games are a male thing. I find that false because there are girls who love video games, like me. I’m referring to girls who are actually gamers. It’s important because there are very few female game developers , designers, programmers, artists, audioists, managers, etc. I know that there are girls like me who want to be in the gaming industry.

I'd be remiss to not point out that Massachusetts suburbanites voted down a proposition in November that would have permitted Boston to add twelve new charter schools, a demonstrated need because currently  34,000 Boston students are sitting on charter school waiting lists. You can thank teacher union president Barbara Madeloni for the state's rejection of Prop 2. Meanwhile, I'm thankful to have a daughter like Emily.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Why Do My Neighbors Demonize the Only Public School -- Princeton Charter -- Where My Special Needs Son Has Thrived?

This is a guest post by Liz Winslow Schartman, a Princeton, New Jersey resident and parent of three children, two of whom have special needs.

Dear neighbors,

I know some of you are very angry that the New Jersey Department of Education announced last Wednesday that it had granted Princeton Charter School’s application to expand its enrollment by seventy-six students. But I have a different point of view.

My husband and I, as you know, have three children. Our middle child is neuro-typical and  would bloom wherever she was planted. However, our two boys are another story.

Our oldest child (a boy) is being seen at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia to pin down what they believe is a genetic syndrome based on physical examination and ancestry data, and since our youngest (also a boy) has his own special needs, pursuing answers here take up a lot of our time, money, and emotional energy. Our youngest, age 4, has the benefit of this being our third parenting rodeo and one where we know our rights about assessments, Child Study Teams, and individualized education. He is now in a self-contained handicapped classroom at Riverside Elementary School and right now my greatest hope for him is that one day he will be mainstreamed.

Our older son is autistic, has severe ADHD, and multiple physical problems. (At one point his working diagnosis was facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy but genetic testing ruled that out and we’re currently waiting for another round.) At first we were reluctant to medicate for all the usual reasons,  but now we realize that he can't do "med holidays" because he then loses his words, crouches, and grunts. He was only diagnosed with autism because we went through vast personal effort and private expense. Otherwise - if he, for example, had an autistic meltdown and needed five minutes in a quiet space - staff at Princeton Public Schools’ Littlebrook Elementary School, which he attended at the time, saw the episode simply as a temper tantrum and thus a discipline problem, escalated the situation, and sent him to the Principal’s office.  Never once was autism mentioned to us by the many experts in Princeton's public schools, so it is distressing that we needed to go outside the school system entirely to get a proper diagnosis.

My neighbors, you know firsthand my son’s issues. So do many of the teachers posting anti-charter rhetoric on our local news platform, Planet Princeton. He has been failed by so many adults in his life -- including his two full-time working parents. (I became a stay-at-home mom partway through Tristan's kindergarten year).

Yet, dear neighbors, you demonize Princeton Charter School, the only public school where our son has thrived.

We charter parents are not elitists. We're not snobs. But like our son, many Princeton Charter School students fell through the cracks at Princeton Public Schools. Special education services and an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) should have been offered at the traditional district yet our son, starting at age 5 (5!)  spent several afternoons a week in the Principal’s office because he was a "discipline" problem.

Incredibly, this need for multiple removals from the classroom vanished upon arriving at Princeton Charter School where we worked collaboratively on a proper IEP and where his teachers  recognized his talents an gave him the lattitude to learn.

Neighbors, please just ask yourselves who has the real interest here: Princeton Charter School, which won't have to submit a charter renewal application for four years and will add another 76 students, weighted to more accurately reflect Princeton Township’s demographics, or Princeton Public Schools, which is battling over tuition payments that amount to about 1% of its annual $83 million operating budget ? Who really had the needs of the kids in mind?

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

"We Will Live By Choice and Not By Chance!"

This credo -- "we will live by choice and not by chance"  echoed through Trenton’s Masonic Hall  on Monday morning as two hundred charter school parents chanted together as they prepared for a series of meetings with New Jersey legislators. The “Charter Parent Action Day,” organized by JerseyCAN, the Better Education Institute, and the New Jersey Charter School Association, was in response to a series of current and pending challenges to N.J.'s public charter schools  that enrolls more than 45,000 students in 88 public charter schools. These challenges include:

  •  a charter moratorium proposed by Assembly Education Committee chairman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex) and Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex);
  •  a court challenge by Education Law Center (which is largely funded by NJEA and allied with the Princeton-based Save our Schools-NJ) that argues that the State’s authorization of charter school expansion in Newark based on parent demand is “arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable";
  • Demands from NJEA that beholden legislators vote against new charter school regulations that would benefit children;
  • The likelihood of NJ’s next governor being less friendly to public school choice than Chris Christie. (N.J.’s antiquated charter school law delegates charter authorization solely to political appointees.); 
  • Six civil rights complaints instigated by a group called “NJ Latino Coalition” (which doesn’t actually represent Latino parents) that charges that charter schools, specifically Red Band Charter School and Princeton Charter School cherry-pick children and increase segregation. (This doesn't happen because applicants are chosen by random lotteries, although some are weighted to increase enrollment of low-income children and those of color.)

I wish Assembly members Diegnan and Jasey were there. I wish Education Law Center’s Executive Director David Sciarra was there. I wish Democratic gubernatorial front-runner Phil Murphy was there. I wish SOS-NJ’s leaders were there.

 If they were,  they would have heard Eladio Diaz, a LEAP charter school parent in Camden, plead to Assemblyman Arthur Barkley (once we got to the Statehouse), “why should we have to fight for the only thing that we have?”

If they were, they would have heard Newark charter school father Altorice Frazier exhort the parents to “stand tall” because “we won’t stand for anything less.”

If they were, they would have heard Charles Love, charter parent and a candidate for the Newark School Board, remind the parents that “we are those who can change and correct the errors of our forefathers…. We’re the ones who are going to change it.”

If they were, they would have heard Haneef Auguste, Newark father of four children who attend who attend KIPP, one of the charters targeted by ELC, explain,  “I made a conscious decision to send my four children to KIPP New Jersey Schools because I wanted something better for my children and couldn’t afford to move or pay for private school. No one should stand in the way of any child’s chance at a better life, especially when the circumstances in some of our communities are so dire.”

Before those two hundred parents left the Masonic Hall to head for State Street, Education Commissioner Kimberly Harrington told them, “your voices are being heard.”

Now if only someone would listen.