getting to graduation

It’s official: New York is making it easier for students with disabilities to graduate this year

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

New York students with disabilities can now graduate high school without passing most Regents exams. The dramatic move by New York’s education policymakers could increase demand for the state’s less-rigorous “local” diploma and reignite a debate about academic requirements for those students.

Under new rules approved Monday, students with disabilities will be able to earn a local diploma by passing the math and English Regents exams and proving to superintendents they have mastered course material in other subjects. Previously, those students had to pass another two or three exams with a lower score.

The changes, which will go into effect this month, are part of a broader effort by New York policymakers over the last two years to help more students reach graduation. Eliminating the need for some students to pass the exit exams is the most noteworthy departure from the state’s traditional requirements yet — and could have a big impact, given that nearly one in five New York City students has a disability. Almost half of graduates with disabilities already opted for the local diploma last year.

“We know that all students are capable of achieving this accomplishment,” State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said Monday. “It’s on us to offer them multiple pathways to do so, pathways that are rigorous.”

State policymakers estimate that the new measure, which was adopted as an emergency regulation but faces a formal vote Tuesday, could help about 2,200 more students graduate this year. It’s also likely to add a dose of confusion into this round of Regents testing — which also starts Tuesday — and schools’ last-minute efforts to certify students for graduation.

Policymakers have been searching for new graduation pathways since 2012, when the state raised the passing Regents exam score to 65, instead of the previously required 55.

Students with disabilities have been at the center of this debate. Only 40 percent of the city’s students graduate high school in four years, and some educators and advocates have worried that students with disabilities were getting snared by the new standards.

But some observers are already worried that the changes, which apply only to students with Individualized Education Programs, could have a negative effect by reducing expectations for students with disabilities.

“This does not sound like a step in the right direction to me,” said Mark Anderson, a special education teacher at Jonas Bronck Academy in a comment on a previous story about the change. “What sort of expectations are we conveying for success in academics if we make it ‘easier’ for some?”

Regents acknowledged that the move might draw criticism for lowering standards, but said the benefits to students and families outweighed that concern.

Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa pointed out that students will still be required to take and pass Regents-level classes, and they will also have to attempt the exams. Keeping students in a rigorous classroom environment is “critical,” she said.

Under the new regulation, superintendents will review a student’s final course grade and also schoolwork completed throughout the year to judge whether he or she mastered the material.

New York has historically struggled to avoid tracking students into less rigorous diploma options. The state eliminated an IEP diploma, an earlier option for students with disabilities that was largely meaningless, since it was not accepted by colleges, the military, or employers as a high school credential.

The state also eliminated the option for most students without disabilities to earn a local diploma in recent years, focusing on getting more students to earn a Regents diploma that requires passing multiple exit exams with a score of 65.

The move away from local diplomas was important for ensuring all students get the best educational experience, said Regent Lester Young, who supported the changes on Monday. When that diploma was available, students of color were being disproportionately steered toward that less-rigorous option, he said.

“Whenever there have been local diploma options, the least of us get pushed in,” he said.

Others think the measure’s requirements are still too stringent for students with disabilities. Some took particular issue with the requirement that students would still have to pass the English Regents exam.

“As an ELA instructor of learning disabled high school students … I am outraged,” said John Connolly, a commenter on a previous story about the policy change. “Of all exams, how can the Regents believe that the Common Core ELA should remain?”

outside the box

Program to bring back dropout students is one of 10 new ideas Jeffco is investing in

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Jeffco students who drop out will have another option for completing high school starting this fall, thanks to a program that is being started with money from a district “innovation fund.”

The new program would allow students, particularly those who are older and significantly behind on credits, to get district help to prepare for taking a high school equivalency test, such as the GED, while also taking college courses paid for by the district.

The idea for the program was pitched by Dave Kollar, who has worked for Jeffco Public Schools for almost 20 years, most recently as the district’s director of student engagement.

In part, Kollar’s idea is meant to give students hope and to allow them to see college as a possibility, instead of having to slowly walk back as they recover credits missing in their transcripts.

“For some kids, they look at you, and rightfully so, like ‘I’m going to be filling in holes for a year or two? This doesn’t seem realistic,’” Kollar said. “They’re kind of defeated by that. As a student, I’m constantly looking backwards at my failures. This is about giving kids something like a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Jeffco’s dropout rate has decreased in the last few years, like it has across the state. At 1.7 percent, the rate isn’t high, but still represents 731 students who dropped out last year.

Kollar’s was one of ten winning ideas announced earlier this month in the district’s first run at giving out mini-grants to kick-start innovative ideas. Kollar’s idea received $160,000 to get the program started and to recruit students who have dropped out and are willing to come back to school.

The other ideas that the district gave money to range from school building improvements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act at Fletcher Miller Special School, from new school health centers to a new district position to help work on safety in schools. One school, Stott Elementary, will create a “tinker lab” where students will have space and supplies to work on projects as part of the school’s project-based learning model.

The Jeffco school board approved $1 million for the awards earlier this year. It was an idea proposed by Superintendent Jason Glass as a way of encouraging innovation in the district. This spring process is meant as a test run. The board will decide whether to continue investing in it once they see how the projects are going later this spring.

Officials say they learned a lot already. Tom McDermott, who oversaw the process, will present findings and recommendations to the board at a meeting next month.

If the board agrees to continue the innovation fund, McDermott wants to find different ways of supporting more of the ideas that educators present, even if there aren’t dollars for all of them.

That’s because in this first process — even though educators had short notice — teachers and other Jeffco staff still completed and submitted more than 100 proposals. Of those, 51 ideas scored high enough to move to the second round of the process in which the applicants were invited to pitch their ideas to a committee made up of Jeffco educators.

“We’re extremely proud of the 10,” McDermott said, but added, “we want to be more supportive of more of the ideas.”

McDermott said he thinks another positive change might be to create tiers so that smaller requests compete with each other in one category, and larger or broader asks compete with one another in a separate category.

This year, the applicants also had a chance to request money over time, but those parts of the awards hang on the board allocating more money.

Kollar’s idea for the GED preparation program for instance, includes a request for $348,800 next year. In total, among the 10 awards already granted, an extra $601,487 would be needed to fund the projects in full over the next two years.

Awards for innovation fund. Provided by Jeffco Public Schools.

The projects are not meant to be sustained by the award in the long-term, and some are one-time asks.

Kollar said that if that second phase of money doesn’t come through for his program, it should still be able to move forward. School districts are funded per student, so by bringing more students back to the district, the program would at least get the district’s student-based budget based on however many students are enrolled.

A similar program started in Greeley this fall is funded with those dollars the state allocates to districts for each student. So far, eight students there already completed a GED certificate, and there are now 102 other students enrolled, according to a spokeswoman for the Greeley-Evans school district.

But, having Jeffco’s innovation money could help Kollar’s program provide additional services to the students, such as a case manager that can help connect students to food or housing resources if needed.

And right now Kollar is working on setting up systems to track data around how many students end up completing the program, earning a high school equivalency certificate, enrolling in a college or trade-school, or getting jobs.

Helping more students on a path toward a career is the gold standard, he said, and what makes the program innovative.

“It’s not just about if the student completes high school,” Kollar said. “It’s are we making sure we are intentionally bridging them into whatever the next pathway is?”

biding time

Strike vote by Denver teachers no longer imminent due to contract extension

PHOTO: Eric Gorski
The bargaining teams from Denver Public Schools and the Denver teachers union at a contract negotiation session in 2017.

Although the Denver school district and its teachers union failed to reach a deal on an overhaul of the district’s pay-for-performance system, the prospect of a strike is less imminent.

Earlier this week, the union’s board of directors authorized a strike vote if a new agreement couldn’t be reached by the time the current one expired at midnight Wednesday.

The two sides couldn’t come to terms on how to change the system, but did reach a different kind of deal: District officials agreed to the union’s request to extend the current pay-for-performance agreement until January 2019 in the hopes that Colorado voters will approve a tax increase in November benefiting schools, making teacher pay raises more likely. However, the union did not take the threat of a strike completely off the table.

A statement from the union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said the union “will begin preparing to take work actions to ensure progress on the new compensation system. If no agreement is reached by the Jan. 18 deadline, DCTA will immediately ask for a strike vote from union members the following day.”

In other districts that have experienced labor conflicts, teachers have picketed, refused to work extra hours, and even waged “sickouts.” The Denver teachers union did not specify the types of work actions they were considering.

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district was reluctant to sign a ten-month extension, “but in the end, we are prepared to honor their request for more time.”

“We all have a very clear, common goal and common interest around supporting our kids and giving our kids the very best chances to learn and grow,” Boasberg said. “I’m confident that common goal and common aspirations will help us move toward an agreement.”

Denver’s pay-for-performance system, called ProComp, was first piloted in 1999. Under the current agreement, teachers earn a base salary based partly on their level of education and years of experience, and partly on how much training they completed the year before and on the outcome of a yearly evaluation that takes student test scores into account.

Teachers can also earn bonuses and incentives on top of their base salary. This year, for example, teachers who work in a hard-to-serve school with a high percentage of students living in poverty can earn an extra $2,578 per year.

The union wants to make teachers’ paychecks more predictable by moving back to a traditional “steps and lanes” salary schedule in which raises are based on education and experience. Union leaders also want higher base salaries. The union proposed a salary schedule that would pay teachers with a doctorate degree and 20 or more years of experience a base salary of $100,000 with the opportunity to earn a more limited number of incentives on top of that.

The district, meanwhile, proposed a salary schedule that would continue to take teacher evaluations into account when calculating raises but would allow teachers to more significantly build their base salaries for more years. While the union’s proposal shrinks some incentives, the district’s proposal grows the incentive for teaching in a hard-to-serve school.

District officials said the union’s proposal is too expensive. ProComp is funded by a voter-approved tax increase that is expected to raise about $35 million this year. The union’s proposal would cost more than twice as much, district officials said.

Union leaders asked to extend the current agreement until January 2019 in the hopes that Colorado voters approve a proposed ballot measure that would raise $1.6 billion for schools. Backers of the measure, which would increase income taxes for people who earn more than $150,000 per year, are collecting signatures to get it on the November ballot.

Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requires that voters approve any tax increase. In 2013, voters rejected a school funding tax increase that would have raised $950 million its first year.

Boasberg supports this year’s effort. He’s among the Colorado superintendents pushing for a new, “student centered” school funding formula if the measure passes.

“The entire purpose of that funding measure is to strengthen teacher compensation, decrease class sizes, and improve supports for kids,” Boasberg said. “So if that passes, of course we will eagerly sit down with DCTA to discuss how we strengthen our compensation for teachers.”