moving on

Walcott visits ex-turnaround schools without addressing turmoil

Dennis Walcott, with Principal Magdalen Radovich, students, and several officials from the Sports and Arts in Schools Foundation, announced an AT&T grant to fund Flushing HS after-school programs.

Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott has quietly visited several former “turnaround” schools in recent weeks, but he has done so without calling attention to the fact that the city planned to close them until just a few months ago.

During the first week of school, Walcott made unannounced visits to two of the schools in Brooklyn. At John Dewey High School, where large-scale scheduling problems are prevailing, he shook hands with students one morning. He stopped by William Grady Career and Technical High School, which was removed from the turnaround roster in April, the same day. Neither visit made his public schedule, and department officials said they had nothing to do with the schools’ ex-turnaround status. Instead, the stops were like many that the chancellor, an avid school visitor, has made outside of public view, the officials said.

And on Wednesday, he shared the stage with the new principal of Flushing High School at a press conference heralding a substantial grant from AT&T to the Sports and Arts in Schools Foundation, which runs an after-school program at the school. Working in about 150 city schools, SASF was only the second group, after the YMCA of New York, to receive a grant through Aspire, a $250 million AT&T grant program aimed at boosting college readiness among high-need students. The grant will help SASF hire staff to support its program at Flushing, which includes targeted efforts to help incoming ninth-graders make up academic ground.

Speaking to the students and staff who attended the press conference, Walcott praised SASF and said, “We expect success from all of you to not just achieve but to achieve at a high level. To do that you need to support great teachers, you need to support great leaders, we need to support families, not-for-profits, the generosity of corporate giving.”

But he did not acknowledge the turmoil the school had gone through in recent months as the city tried to close and reopen it using the turnaround process. Nor did he note the school’s leadership change, made in turnaround’s early stages. And after the press conference, Walcott ducked out without talking to reporters. A department spokeswoman said he was late to a meeting and would be taking questions over email instead, but the spokeswoman did not respond by day’s end.

The city was in the process of overhauling Flushing and 23 other struggling schools when an arbitrator ruled this summer that the city’s staffing plans violated its contract with the teachers union. Many of the changes were reversed, and since the year began, students and teachers at some of the schools have complained of confusion and disorganization that they say might be the result of abrupt leadership and staffing changes that cut into planning time administrators normally reserve over the summer.

While Walcott spoke inside Flushing’s light-filled auditorium shortly after 3 p.m., a half dozen students milled about the school grounds, waiting for the school’s 4:30 p.m. dismissal. All said they had left early because their last period of the day was a Spanish class that has not yet been assigned a teacher for the year. Other students said they had noted few changes to the school since the previous school year but had been surprised to receive first semester schedules that included classes they had not requested or had already taken and passed, such as art.

Scores of students rallied in defense of the school and its principal of one year, Carl Hudson, last winter during a tense public hearing on the city’s plan to close the school. Hudson was arrested near school shortly after the school year ended for possession of methamphetamine, but the city had already planned to replace him with Radovich, a former assistant principal at Queens Vocational Career and Technical High School.

Radovich told reporters on Wednesday she is optimistic about the changes ahead for Flushing and was unfamiliar with students’ complaints. She said she has been offering her staff new professional development opportunities to help them prepare for the rollout of new learning standards.

“The challenge is really to make sure that all of the adults stay focused,” she said. “Trying to meet the mandates and the expectations that we all know are on target, you need to be able to reeducate and retrain teachers, administrators, and for me it was a tremendous learning curve as well.”

One group of students that should see positive changes right away is Flushing’s large population of English language learners and recent immigrants, she said.

“One of the things we did over the summer was we looked very very carefully at how the ELL students are being serviced and we have reprogrammed the entire building to make sure we are providing the mandated services that students need,” Radovich said. “Also we have started through the parent coordinator to start to reach out more to community resources.”

departures

As fate of ‘Newark Enrolls’ is debated, top enrollment officials resign

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

The top officials overseeing Newark’s controversial school-enrollment system have resigned just weeks after the school board blocked the new superintendent from ousting them.

Their departure creates new uncertainty for Newark Enrolls, one of the few enrollment systems in the country that allows families to apply to district and charter schools through a single online portal. Proponents say the centralized system simplifies the application process for families and gives them more options, while critics say it undermines traditional neighborhood schools while boosting charter-school enrollment.

Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, chief of the Newark Public Schools division that includes enrollment, and Kate Fletcher, executive director of the enrollment office, both departed on Friday. The district did not provide information about why they left or who — if anyone — will replace them, and neither of the two could be reached for comment.

Their departure comes after Superintendent Roger León, who took over on July 1, included them among 31 officials and administrators who were given the option to resign or face being fired. Days later, the school board approved all but nine of the dismissals; Ramos-Solomon and Fletcher were among those spared.

Both officials were hired in 2013 shortly before former Superintendent Cami Anderson unveiled the enrollment system, then called One Newark, as part of a sweeping overhaul that also included closing some schools. Parents were outraged by the closures and the system’s glitchy rollout, which left some students without school placements and separated other students from their siblings.

In recent years, Ramos-Solomon has overseen improvements to the system, including tweaking the computer algorithm that matches students with schools to give a greater boost to families who live near their chosen schools. While district data shows that most students are matched with one of their top choices, critics remain wary of the system and some — including some board members — call for it to be dismantled.

León, a veteran Newark educator who was expected by some observers to oppose Newark Enrolls, said in a private meeting with charter-school leaders that he intends to keep the process in place. But he will have to win over the board, whose members have asked the district skeptical questions about the system in recent months, such as why some students are reportedly matched with charter schools they didn’t apply to. (The district says that does not happen.)

Board member Tave Padilla said he was not aware that Ramos-Solomon or Fletcher had resigned, and did not know whether replacements had been lined up. He added that the board had not discussed the fate of Newark Enrolls since a meeting in June where Ramos-Solomon provided information about the system, nor has the full board discussed the matter with León.

“The district now does have the option to keep what we have in place, modify it, or do away with it,” he said. “Whether we choose to do that or not, I don’t know.”

Future of Schools

Indiana is struggling to give kids speech therapy. Here’s why it’s getting harder.

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Indiana let emergency permits that make it easier for schools to hire high-demand speech-language pathologists lapse — and there won’t be time to address the oversight before the first day of classes.

“This is going to take legislative action to resolve,” said Risa Regnier, director of licensing for the Indiana Department of Education. “So there’s really no way to fix this for the beginning of school this year.”

The communication disorders emergency permits, which expired at the end of June, were created by a 2007 law to offer relief to schools struggling to find enough speech-language pathologists, educators say. While the number of students who will be affected wasn’t immediately available, nearly one-fifth of all special education students across the state need speech and language services.

The permits allowed schools to hire graduates of four-year speech-language programs who have been accepted to master’s programs, which are typically required for a full license as a speech-language pathologist.

But the employees who use these permits are no longer able to continue in their jobs, and the state cannot issue new permits unless lawmakers step in.

“You have to understand that we have a huge shortage of (speech-language pathologists),” said Ann Higgins, director of a special education cooperative that serves four districts in north central Indiana. “This is the beginning of my sixth year being director, and we have yet to be fully staffed … as a result, we’re constantly piecing together a puzzle, if you will, to provide speech services.”

These professionals can work in educational or medical settings, and their roles can vary widely depending on the students they serve. They might work on letter sounds with some students with milder needs, but they could also help students with more severe disabilities improve swallowing.

According to state data, 84 educators who currently have full communications disorders licenses once held emergency permits, and 190 have received them since 2007.

The emergency permits are a “last resort,” said Tammy Hurm, who handles legislative affairs for the Indiana Council of Administrators of Special Education. But they have made it possible for speech-language program graduates to work as pathologists while completing their licenses. With the permits, schools have had more flexibility around supervision, but permit-holders still couldn’t practice outside of what they’ve been educated to do.

Although the number of people affected might seem small, many districts are seeing a shortage, Hurm said, especially rural districts like Higgins’ that already have a hard time attracting people to jobs in their communities.

Because schools can rarely pay as much as a hospital or nursing home, schools are not as attractive for the already-small number of fully qualified speech-language pathology graduates. Part of that also stems from the fact that the needed master’s programs have caps on enrollment.

“A lot of the kids that graduate go directly into medical (jobs) because they pay more, they can work more days,” Higgins said. “Unless they have school experience or know that school is what they love … a lot go medical.”

This problem is not unique to Indiana. Across the country, demand for speech-language pathologists is projected to grow 18 percent by 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s partially because of growth in other groups of people that need them, such as senior citizens, and because of growing school enrollment and earlier, more frequent identification of speech and language issues.

Without these permits, four-year graduates in speech and language can generally only be speech-language pathology assistants, which means they can offer certain services with supervision, Hurm said. Salaries can be hourly or close to what a starting teacher might make.

To get over the pay hurdle, Higgins has been creative. Her co-op runs entirely on federal funds, a strategy that began three years ago so she could pay speech-language pathologists higher salaries than what collective bargaining rules dictated. More than one-third of her budget is just spent on speech services.

But critics of the emergency permits say they’re a short-term solution and place under-qualified people in roles they aren’t prepared to handle.

Undergraduate students who study speech, language, and hearing sciences typically have only a theoretical knowledge of what communications disorders are like, not the clinical, hands-on experience they’d get at the graduate level to diagnose and treat children.

When the students get an emergency permit that grants them some responsibilities that usually only come with full licensure, it can be a disincentive to finish the program, critics point out.

“The problem with that is that those folks then are not put in a position where they have to continue their education,” said Janet Deppe, director of state advocacy for the The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. “We don’t necessarily believe that just putting a body in a place is going to make a difference in that child’s educational success and success beyond education.”

Adam Baker, spokesman for the education department, said education officials are discussing what to do about the permits now so that they can find a way forward and propose a solution during next year’s legislative session.

Higgins didn’t find out the permits were expiring until the spring — after the previous legislative session had already ended. With the emergency permits off the table for this year, Higgins has lost one employee. That leaves her with three full-time speech-language pathologists for the coming year in a co-op that serves about 1,170 students — 455 of which need speech services. To be fully staffed, she needs seven pathologists.

Each speech-language pathologist is responsible for about 60 students at a time, though it can grow to be closer to 70, she said.

To get by, Higgins is having retirees come in to supervise assistants, evaluate students, work on education plans, and write reports. She’s also using teletherapy — providing speech-language services over the internet — for high-schoolers, who generally need less intensive therapies.

The permit expiration is frustrating, she said, because it’s one more factor working against schools that have been trying to fully staff speech and language programs for years — and especially because for the majority of students, speech therapy can fix their issues. It’s not always the case, Higgins said, but many times, students’ speech or language problems are correctable with therapy, meaning they won’t need services in the future.

It puts the shortage, and the effects of losing the emergency permits, into perspective, she said.

“While there may not be many people impacted by this particular change … it just magnifies this whole shortage issue that we have with speech-language pathologists,” Higgins said. “We just lost a person that serves 60 kids.”