SESIS UNDER FIRE

James sues city for not properly tracking services for students with disabilities

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Public Advocate Letitia James

Public Advocate Letitia James has filed a lawsuit against the city education department, alleging that flaws with its special-education data system have resulted in missing support services for some students and the loss of millions of dollars.

The lawsuit centers on the embattled $130 million Special Education Student Information System, or SESIS. That system was designed to allow educators to more easily keep track of the learning plans created for each of the city’s more than 200,000 students with disabilities, and to make sure the students receive their mandated services.

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However, the system came under fire almost immediately after it was rolled out in 2011. Teachers reported that it was glitchy and burdensome, and the city comptroller blamed the system for keeping the city collecting millions of dollars in federal Medicaid reimbursements for low-income students with disabilities.

Now, James is taking those longstanding critiques of the Bloomberg-era system one step further by filing the lawsuit, which claims that problems with SESIS contributed to the city losing out on $356 million in Medicaid dollars over several years.

“The program doesn’t work and it never has,” James said at a press conference Monday. “The failure of the system has been one of the department’s worst-kept secrets.”

When former City Comptroller John Liu made a similar claim in 2013, city officials denied that Medicaid reimbursements are in any way affected by SESIS. On Monday, a city law department spokesman said the city plans to review James’ lawsuit.

The latest attack on SESIS comes on the heels of a U.S. Department of Justice investigation that found the city provides “inexcusable” accommodations for its young students with disabilities and has failed to address the problem for years. On Friday, the city formally rejected the findings that two-year investigation by the office of Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, the New York Times reported.

School staff working with special-education students are required to log information into SESIS about each student’s “Individualized Education Program,” or IEP, including details about initial evaluations, meetings with parents, services provided, and any changes made to the plan. But the system suffered from so many technical problems early on that teachers had to input data on evenings and weekends, which eventually led an arbitrator to order the city to pay $38 million in overtime to more than 30,000 educators.

Advocates have other complaints. Ellen McHugh, a longtime special education advocate and James’s appointee on the citywide council on special education, said parents should be able to access the system to keep tabs on their children’s progress.

“We can’t, as parents, access our child’s IEP,” she said. “We can’t, as parents, find out that our IEPs are being implemented.”

Maggie Moroff, special education policy coordinator for Advocates for Children, said that many students with disabilities do go without their mandated services. While she hesitated to lay the blame completely on SESIS, she said the city needs to make sure that no students fall through the cracks.

“There are lots of kids going on without their services,” she said, “and there doesn’t seem to be a system designed to flag that.”

The public advocate’s office has set its sights on the city’s handling of students with disabilities before. In August, James joined a lawsuit — which is set to start oral arguments in April — that claims the city is violating a local law that requires students with disabilities to be transported in air-conditioned buses when it’s particularly warm outside.

“We go wherever the facts lead us,” James said, “and, unfortunately, a significant number of complaints that we have received are from parents with special needs children.”

An education department spokesman did not comment directly on the lawsuit’s claims about SESIS.

However, he said that more school staffers had been trained to use the system. He also noted that the city has taken other steps to boost its supports for students with special needs, including launching more programs for students with autism and hiring 300 additional occupational therapists.

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Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.