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.”

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”