dialing back

Diploma rules for students with disabilities raise hope and fear

For months, advocates for students with special needs have been pushing the state to reconsider a safety net meant to help those students graduate.

But when the state’s top education policy-makers sat down in Albany Monday to discuss the issue, they instead floated the idea of making graduation requirements even easier for students who have disabilities.

This year, for the first time, all students in New York State will have to pass five Regents exams with a 65 or higher in order to graduate. In the past, students have had the option of getting a less rigorous “local diploma” with some scores of 55 or higher, with the number of 65’s required inching upward each year.

But the elimination of the local diploma doesn’t extend to students who require special education services: They will still be able to graduate with 55’s on their transcripts, even on all five required Regents exams.

Advocates say that leniency runs the risk of creating a second-class diploma for students with disabilities, similar to the IEP diploma that is being eliminated. Students had to pass exams known as Regents Competency Tests to get the diploma, but earning one did not qualify graduates for college, work, or the military.

Last month, a group of advocates officially asked the state to extend the local diploma option for all students rather than set students with special needs apart.

“By having a diploma that’s a disabilities-only diploma … it’s a stigmatizing act, singling out kids with disabilities,” said Stephen Boese, the executive director of the state’s Learning Disabilities Association. “Down the line one wonders if there will be a diminution of the diploma.”

Advocates have been making that case in letters, meetings, and phone calls to state officials. But yesterday, when State Education Department officials presented an updated graduation requirement proposal to the Board of Regents, who must approve changes, they suggested widening the safety net even more for students with disabilities.

The students would be allowed to score between 45 and 54 on one Regents exam and still graduate, provided that they had at least one other score of 65 or higher to counterbalance it, according to the proposal. To get credits, students would also have had to pass a class in the tested subject and have attended at least 95 percent of sessions.

Some members of the Board of Regents questioned whether students with disabilities, who typically have a lower attendance rate, could reasonably be expected to attend class 95 percent of the time. State officials said excused absences, as when a student is ill, would not count against them.

Overall, State Education Commissioner John King told the Regents, “We’ve gotten positive feedback in our field conversations about the compensatory model.” He said department officials estimated that as many as 20 to 30 percent of students who had relied on the competency exams to earn IEP diplomas would be able to earn a local diploma with the safety net option.

“We’re certainly not trying to lower the standard for disabilities,” said Jim DeLorenzo, SED’s statewide special education coordinator, during the meeting. “There are some disability-related issues with regard to areas where they can achieve very well and areas where they can achieve tremendous challenges and we’re trying to recognize that.”

Officials emphasized that the local diploma will not be exclusively the domain of students with special needs, because general education students who try multiple times to pass exams and come within a few points of a 65 might be permitted to graduate anyway. But doing so will require the student to file a written appeal for an exemption. Students with disabilities would receive the leniencies automatically, according to the proposal discussed on Monday.

The Regents are not slated to vote on the proposals until October, meaning that changes would not take effect for this year’s seniors and also that the public comment period, which is open now, could lead to other changes.

The advocates are planning to register comments arguing that the state is short-sighted by simply tinkering with Regents exam requirements to differentiate among students with wide-ranging needs. They have been pushing for the Regents to consider “multiple pathways” to graduation instead that would allow all students to show proficiency without passing potentially any Regents exams.

“The new safety net is good as far as it goes, but the fact is that there are going to be a lot of students with disabilities who are not going to succeed on any of the standardized tests,” he said.

Students without disabilities also struggle to pass the required exams, and they too would benefit from a more robust rethinking of what it should take to graduate from high school in New York City, said Gisela Alvarez, a project director for Advocates for Children.

Last year, about 8,000 city students graduated with the local diploma option because they scored a 65 or higher on only four of the five required exams. Some fear that number of students could be kept from graduation this year, under the more stringent requirements.

Some changes appear to be in the pipeline. For example, the state is exploring ways to develop Career and Technical Education assessments that could count toward Regents diploma requirements, potentially substituting for the global history exam, which is most frequently failed.

But any new pathways are years away from becoming live options. State education officials said their goal is to present a progress report on the CTE pathways proposal by September, make recommendations by December, and then create action items to be voted on.

Despite the long runway, Alvarez said she is optimistic about the future, even as the state might make missteps along the way.

“This conversation has been going on for a long time, but it’s only been going on in pieces. The state had not taken a look at this in a comprehensive manner,” she said. “It has been a fragmented conversation up until now.”

Counselor Comeback

Years after laying them off, Newark brings back attendance workers to track down absent students

PHOTO: Newark Public Schools
Superintendent Roger León (center) with more than 40 new attendance counselors the district has hired.

A new school-attendance squad is on the job in Newark, ready to phone families and track down truant students.

More than 40 new attendance counselors and truancy officers made their official debut this week — part of a campaign by Superintendent Roger León to curb rampant absenteeism in the district. The linchpin of León’s approach is the rehiring of the attendance workers, who were laid off nearly six years ago amid questions about their effectiveness.

The employees — some new and some returning — will help craft school attendance plans, contact families, and bring truant students back to class with the help of Newark police officers.

They have their work cut out for them: Nearly a quarter of students have already missed about two weeks or more of school since September, according to district officials.

In his drive to boost attendance, León also launched a back-to-school campaign last fall and eliminated some early-dismissal days when students tend to skip class. At a school board meeting Tuesday, León said those efforts have resulted in fewer “chronically absent” students who miss 10 percent or more of school days for any reason. So far this school year, 23 percent of students are chronically absent, down from 30.5 percent during the same period the previous school year, he said.

“Right now, we’re in a really, really good place,” León told the board. “Having hired these attendance officers will get us where we need to go.”

A long to-do list awaits the attendance workers, who will earn between $53,000 and $95,531, according to a district job posting. They will create daily attendance reports for schools, call or visit families of absent students, and make sure students who are frequently out of school start showing up on time.

They will also be tasked with enforcing the state’s truancy laws, which authorize attendance officers to arrest “habitually truant” students and allow their parents or guardians to be fined. Newark’s attendance counselors will gather evidence for potential legal actions, deliver legal notices to students’ homes, and appear in court “when required,” according to the job posting.

The district is also establishing a new “truancy task force” to track down truant students, as required by state law. The task force will include both district employees and police officers who will patrol the streets searching for truants to transport back to school.

The teams will be “going up and down every one of our corridors and getting kids in school,” León said Tuesday, adding that they will eventually be provided buses.

Criminal-justice reform advocates across the country have criticized state laws, like New Jersey’s, which criminalize truancy. As a result of such laws, parents can face fines or even jail time and students can be put on probation or removed from their homes. Meanwhile, a 2011 study found that truant students who faced legal action were more likely to earn lower grades and drop out of school than truant students who did not face those sanctions.

While truancy laws may be on the books, districts have discretion in how they enforce them.

Peter Chen, a policy counsel for Advocates for Children of New Jersey, has studied absenteeism in Newark and said he did not know how the district’s new attendance workers would carry out the law. But he cautioned against “punitive strategies,” such as issuing court summonses or suspending frequently absent students, which can temporarily boost attendance but eventually drive students further away from school.

“Once the school is viewed as the enemy, as somebody who is out to get the student, it’s incredibly difficult to rebuild a trusting relationship,” he said. “And what we see time and again is that a trusting relationship between a school and a family or student is a critical component to building a school-wide attendance strategy that works.”

Superintendent León declined to be interviewed after Tuesday’s board meeting, saying he would answer written questions. As of Wednesday evening, he had not responded to those questions.

At the meeting, he did not rule out the possibility of the district’s truancy officers making arrests. But he said the police officers’ job was not to arrest truant students, only to protect the attendance workers.

“I need to make sure that any staff members that we hire are safe,” he said.

In 2013, then-Superintendent Cami Anderson laid off all 46 of the district’s attendance counselors. She attributed the decision to budget constraints and limited evidence that the counselors had improved attendance.

The district shifted the counselors’ responsibilities to school-based teams that included administrators, social workers, and teachers. Critics said the district was expecting schools to do more with less, and the Newark Teachers Union — which had represented the attendance counselors — fought the layoffs in court. An administrative law judge sided with the union, but then-State Education Commissioner David Hespe later overturned the decision.

León, who became superintendent in July, promised to promptly restore the attendance counselors. However, his plans were delayed by a legal requirement that the district first offer the new jobs to the laid-off counselors, some of whom had moved out of state. By the beginning of February, all the positions had been filled and, on Friday, León held a roughly 90-minute meeting with the new attendance team.

To create lasting attendance gains, experts advise schools to consider every aspect of what they do — their discipline policies, the emotional support they provide students, the quality of teaching, and the relationship between staffers and families. Simply outsourcing attendance to designated employees will not work, they warn.

Superintendent León appears to agree. In an interview last year, he said he expects all school employees to join in the work of improving attendance.

“The last thing that needs to happen is for people to walk away saying, ‘Oh, attendance is going to be solved because now we have the attendance counselors,’” León said. “No, everyone has to worry about attendance.”

Newark Enrolls

After changes and challenges, Friday’s deadline to enroll in Newark schools finally arrives

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
A student fills out an information sheet at Central High School's booth at the citywide school fair in December.

Newark families have just a few hours left to apply to more than 70 public schools for next fall.

At noon on Friday, the online portal that allows families to apply to most traditional and charter school will close. After that, they will have to visit the district’s enrollment center. Last year, nearly 13,000 applications were submitted.

The stakes — and stress — are greatest for students entering high school. Each year, hundreds of eighth-graders compete for spots at the city’s selective “magnet” high schools, which many students consider their best options.

This year, those eighth-graders have to jump through an extra hoop — a new admissions test the magnets will use as they rank applicants. District students will sit for the test Friday, while students in charter and private schools will take it Saturday.

That’s news to many parents, including Marie Rosario, whose son, Tamir, is an eighth-grader at Park Elementary School in the North Ward.

“I don’t know nothing about it,” she said. District officials have been tight-lipped about what’s on the new test, how it will factor into admissions decisions, or even why introducing it was deemed necessary.

Students can apply to as many as eight schools. Tamir’s top choice was Science Park, one of the most sought-after magnet schools. Last year, just 29 percent of eighth-graders who ranked it first on their applications got seats.

“I’m going to cross my fingers,” Rosario said.

Students will find out in April where they were matched. Last year, 84 percent of families applying to kindergarten got their first choice. Applicants for ninth grade were less fortunate: Only 41 percent of them got their top choice, the result of so many students vying for magnet schools.

This is the sixth year that families have used the online application system, called Newark Enrolls, to pick schools. Newark is one of the few cities in the country to use a single application for most charter and district schools. Still, several charter schools do not participate in the system, nor do the vocational high schools run by Essex County.

Today, surveys show that most families who use the enrollment system like it. However, its rollout was marred by technical glitches and suspicions that it was designed to funnel students into charter schools, which educate about one in three Newark students. Some charter critics hoped the district’s newly empowered school board would abolish the system. Instead, Superintendent Roger León convinced the board to keep it for now, arguing it simplifies the application process for families.

Managing that process has posed challenges for León, who began as schools chief in July.

First, he ousted but did not replace the district’s enrollment chief. Then, he clashed with charter school leaders over changes to Newark Enrolls, leading them to accelerate planning for an alternative system, although that never materialized. Next, the district fell behind schedule in printing an enrollment guidebook for families.

Later, the district announced the new magnet-school admissions test but then had to delay its rollout as León’s team worked to create the test from scratch with help from principals, raising questions from testing experts about its validity. Magnet school leaders, like families, have said they are in the dark about how heavily the new test will be weighted compared to the other criteria, including grades and state test scores, that magnet schools already use to rank applicants.

Meanwhile, León has repeatedly dropped hints about new “academies” opening inside the district’s traditional high schools in the fall to help those schools compete with the magnets. However, the district has yet to hold any formal informational sessions for families about the academies or provide details about them on the district website or in the enrollment guidebook. As a result, any such academies are unlikely to give the traditional schools much of an enrollment boost this year.

District spokeswoman Tracy Munford did not respond to a request Thursday to speak with an official about this year’s enrollment process.

Beyond those hiccups, the enrollment process has mostly gone according to plan. After activating the application website in December, the district held a well-attended school fair where families picked up school pamphlets and chatted with representatives. Individual elementary schools, such as Oliver Street School in the East Ward, have also invited high school principals to come and tell students about their offerings.

American History High School Principal Jason Denard said he made several outings to pitch his magnet school to prospective students. He also invited middle-school groups to tour his school, and ordered glossy school postcards. Now, along with students and families across the city, all he can do is wait.

“I’m excited to see the results of our recruitment efforts,” he said. “Not much else is in my control — but recruitment is.”