an open forum

Fariña: System overhaul will improve special-ed issues

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña

The coming school-system overhaul will improve special education services for students, Chancellor Carmen Fariña promised Monday night.

At a forum held by the New York Daily News and the faith-group coalition Metro-IAF, parents and educators presented Fariña with a number of harrowing stories. One parent said her signature had being forged on her child’s Individualized Education Program, the document laying out requirements for special services. Others talked about waiting months for a necessary evaluation or for a student to get access to a special service provider.

Fariña, flanked by her deputy in charge of special education, Corinne Rello-Anselmi, listened and acknowledged that she couldn’t fix the mistakes of the past. But the city’s new borough support centers will soon make it easier for schools and parents to escalate concerns, she said. In addition, the superintendents whom she has given new power and staff will be held accountable for the needs of special-education students, and each of their offices will have a parent liaison who will be asked to keep a log of concerns.

“We’re trying to make the system cleaner, clearer and more accountable,” Fariña said. Strong superintendents, she said later, are “what it’s all going to come down to.”

“You’re going to have a person to call,” Fariña said.

That overhaul has already begun, with superintendents of the city’s community school districts and groups of high schools getting more oversight power this year. The switch will fully flip this summer, as the school-support networks that have helped schools with things like instruction, budgeting, and special-education services are dismantled and their most of their staff members put into local support offices or placed under superintendents.

Fariña also faced tough questions from parents about the city’s struggling schools. Wendy Peters, the night’s first featured speaker, attended P.S. 305 in Bedford-Stuyvesant as a child, but declined to send her own child there in the late 1990s because of the school’s poor reputation. Now, she volunteers there as a tutor, but has seen little progress. No third graders there passed the state reading or math exams last year, Peters noted. (Of the school’s third through fifth graders, 14 percent met the state’s proficiency bar in math last year, while 11 percent did in reading.)

“Isn’t 16 years a reasonable amount of time for underperforming schools to receive the proper assistance they need or to be restructured and/or closed?” Peters asked.

The chancellor’s response hit familiar themes. For one, the superintendent in Brooklyn’s District 13 is working to offer teachers and principals extra support and training, Fariña said. Schools in the city’s Renewal turnaround program (which P.S. 305 is not a part of) are getting even more help, aided by the Renewal-focused staff member reporting to each superintendent.

“I’m not making excuses for what’s been decades of neglect, but I will say at many schools they didn’t have the right tools and they didn’t have the right supervision,” Fariña said.

“There’s no quick answer,” Fariña said, responding to a question about when parents should expect larger-scale improvements at the city’s Renewal schools. “I’m not telling you 16 years is not a long time to wait. Because it is, absolutely, without a doubt. However, I’ve been on the job a year and half, and you have to give me at least another year.”

Soon, struggling elementary schools will get extra help with phonics instruction, and second graders will take the Gates-Macginitie Reading Test to better assess their skills, Fariña said. Meanwhile, superintendents are closely scrutinizing school leadership, and 10 principals have recently been moved to other jobs.

The chancellor will participate in a second, similar forum on May 28.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”