crisis management

Here’s how Richard Carranza handled Houston’s special education crisis and what it could mean for New York City

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
With schools closed for spring break, Richard Carranza joined Mayor Bill de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray for lunch at Katz's Deli on his first day as chancellor.

Two days before Richard Carranza took over as superintendent of the Houston Independent School District in 2016, a crisis that had been more than a decade in the making broke into public view.

The Houston Chronicle had just revealed that school districts across Texas systematically denied services to students with disabilities under pressure from the state — and Houston was no exception.

In the coming months, the paper showed that Houston officials had “enthusiastically embraced” the state’s arbitrary limit on the proportion of students who could could receive special education services. As a result, thousands of students went without access to therapies and counseling that they needed — and might legally have been entitled to.

As the full scope of the crisis came into focus after Carranza arrived in September 2016, the new superintendent vowed to enlist outside experts to conduct a thorough review of the district’s practices. “We will have a tough conversation about the importance of serving all children, regardless of any disability,” he said at the time.

So when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Carranza as his pick to replace Chancellor Carmen Fariña, local advocates privately wondered what his record on special education in Houston might mean for New York.

“It was something we scrambled and looked at,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children.

Moroff and many of the city’s special education advocates soon learned that the new chancellor shares some of their priorities. Carranza has said he supports including special education students in mainstream classes whenever possible, for instance, and said he has worked to reduce the overidentification of African-American students for special education services.

But they also learned more about what unfolded in Houston — where it wasn’t long before some advocates became frustrated that the special education scandal seemed to be subsumed by other issues including a budget crisis and threats of a state takeover, leaving some feeling like Carranza had not prioritized reforming a system that routinely left students without crucial services.

“A whole generation of educators were told to deny evaluation and be skeptical of referrals for evaluation,” said Dustin Rynders, who supervises a team of lawyers at Disability Rights Texas, a Houston-based advocacy group. “I didn’t feel change was happening fast enough.”

Rynders acknowledged that Carranza was dealt a difficult hand: Denying special education services had been encouraged by the state, ingrained in the district’s culture, and began well before Carranza arrived.

But multiple observers also said that while Carranza said many of the right things, it’s less clear to what extent his efforts changed the reality in schools. A recent audit shows that the district still kept students from being evaluated for special education services after Carranza initiated reforms.

Carranza took “good first steps,” Rynders added. “Do I think special education has largely changed during his first year and a half in the district? No.”

At the heart of Houston’s special education crisis was an arbitrary cap state officials first set in 2004: Despite federal laws that require districts to evaluate any student suspected of having a disability, the state secretly decreed that just 8.5 percent of students should qualify for special education services.

Defending themselves to the Chronicle, officials said they wanted to cut down on costs. They also cited concerns that too many students were being identified as having special needs — an issue that advocates see as particularly possible for students of color who might need different help to be successful in school. But no research suggests that only 8.5 percent of students have disabilities. Nationally, about 13 percent of students are classified as requiring special education services, a rate Texas fell below even before the cap was imposed.

Houston ISD — the seventh largest school district in the country — set an even stricter cutoff in the years before Carranza arrived, resulting in just 7.26 percent of students being identified for special education services, nearly the lowest of any urban school system in the country. (In New York City, by contrast, roughly 19 percent of students receive such services.)

To cut down on the number of students assigned special education services, “HISD officials slashed hundreds of positions from the special education department, dissuaded evaluators from diagnosing disabilities until second grade and created a list of ‘exclusionary factors’ that disqualify students from getting services,” according to the Chronicle investigation.

At the same time, district officials defended the extraordinarily low numbers, arguing that they showed early interventions were working and even that special education was not a useful service. “Special education does not deliver better outcomes for kids,” said Sowmya Kumar, the district’s special education director from 2010 to 2017.

That statement outraged advocates. Bob Sanborn, who runs Children at Risk, a statewide advocacy organization, quickly became one of the loudest voices suggesting that Kumar should be fired. He worried that Carranza was being told that the crisis was not as bad as it seemed.

Sanborn was impressed that Kumar resigned, a move he partly credits to Carranza.

“I knew there were forces inside the Houston school district saying, ‘Don’t pay attention to the Chronicle,’” Sanborn told Chalkbeat. “He was able to rise above that and see it objectively and basically pledged to try and fix the system.”

Under Carranza’s leadership, the district ultimately launched a series of parent forums, reorganized the special education department, updated its special education procedures, and added training for educators and staff. Officials also banned schools from using teaching methods designed for struggling students instead of evaluating them for special education services.

But some parents and advocates complained that Carranza did not make special education a top priority, and that his 18-month tenure meant that he left before any lasting changes could take hold.

“I just didn’t see Carranza very involved in the special education issues, despite the huge crisis that was going on,” said Cynthia Singleton, a Houston parent and advocate who has navigated the district’s special education system. She appreciated the district’s listening sessions, but said it wasn’t clear whether they had an impact.

Rynders, of Disability Rights Texas, pointed out that Carranza faced a litany of challenges — a natural disaster in Hurricane Harvey, a massive budget shortfall, and the threat of a state takeover — but echoed that special education never seemed to rise to the top.

“I heard him make some generic comments expressing that we must serve special kids and must make improvements, but I didn’t hear any detailed plan of action,” Rynders said, adding that he still receives calls from parents who are struggling to get their children evaluated for services.

In fact, there have not yet been significant increases in the number of Houston students who are identified for special education services.

Carranza has defended his handling of the special education crisis, pointing to meetings with parents and special education teachers and his call for an outside review of the district’s special education practices. (An education department spokeswoman in New York did not make Carranza available for comment.)

“Once that was brought to my attention we immediately acted,” Carranza said at his first press conference in New York City, referring to Texas’s cap on special education services. “In your new chancellor, as I know with the current chancellor, you have a champion for all students, including students with disabilities.”

Here, Carranza will take over a system that includes 221,000 students with disabilities — a population that is larger than Houston’s entire student population and which comes with its own set of longstanding problems.

Students with disabilities continue to post far lower test scores and graduation rates than their peers. Roughly 27 percent of students who were assigned special education services, or 48,000 students, only received some of the services they were entitled to, or none at all. And the city can’t be sure how accurate those numbers are because its system for tracking student services is notoriously glitchy.

Moroff said she is optimistic that Carranza will take those problems seriously — and that local advocates will make sure those students remain on his agenda.

“He’s obviously got some experience looking at special education, and looking at it systematically,” Moroff said. “We hope it stays on his radar here.”

First Person

We’re college counselors in Chicago. We want our district to stop steering students to colleges where they probably won’t graduate.

Chicago Public Schools recently unveiled personalized “College Readiness Guides” for high school sophomores and juniors. The district hopes the reports will help continue to boost high school graduation and college enrollment rates.

Andrew Johnson

As college and career advisors at Chicago high schools, we hope the guides will help, but we’re less optimistic. Some critical blind spots might make them a significant missed opportunity.

Ryan Kinney

For one, there are a number of data problems in these new reports. Student grade point averages and number of credits earned are eight months out of date — a period long enough for high schoolers to get off track or regain momentum. The reports also don’t account for whether students have even had the opportunity to meet some of the graduation requirements yet, unwittingly creating the impression that some of our students are off track when they may be doing just fine.

But perhaps the most glaring omission is not about students’ current performance, but about the success rates of the colleges they are on track to attend.

Students examining the reports will see the names of several dozen colleges color-coded according to whether each school, based on their GPAs and test scores, should be considered a “match,” a “reach,” or “unlikely.” That tells students what schools they could go to, but by itself is little help for determining which colleges a students should go to. The missing ingredient is specific guidance about identifying and comparing the colleges’ graduation rates.

Read more about Chicago’s new “College Readiness Guides.”

The significance of considering institutional graduation rates in college advising was cemented by groundbreaking research from the University of Chicago in 2008, and CPS has been wise to partner with the University’s school research arm ever since. This partnership makes it all the more surprising that the new reports fail to capitalize on the researchers’ key finding: Regardless of high school GPA, students graduate from college at higher rates when they attend more selective institutions. In other words, generally speaking, the harder it is to gain admission to a school, the more likely students are to succeed there.

So the absence of colleges’ graduation rates on CPS’s new reports represents a troubling missed opportunity. Graduates of Chicago Public Schools have been enrolling in college at increasing rates over the last decade, but there hasn’t been a meaningful increase in students’ college graduation rates since at least 2011. A powerful response to this phenomenon would be to examine more closely where CPS graduates have been enrolling, to identify colleges where our students have been less successful and where they might continue to be less successful in the future. Instead, the reports replicate the list of CPS graduates’ recent college destinations, threatening to reproduce the pattern of college enrollment without graduation.

Meanwhile, the guides place such a wide range of colleges in a student’s “match” category that they obscure the meaning of the concept. A “match” in college counseling refers to a college that is appropriately selective given a student’s academic profile. It helps a student distinguish what’s possible, but also, just as crucially, what might be ill-advised.

Yet the district’s new report often lumps together both the University of Illinois at Chicago and, for example, Harold Washington College, as “matches.” This implies that the two schools might be roughly equivalent options. Yet most college access professionals could quickly tell you that UIC admits students with an average GPA of 3.25 and has a six-year graduation rate of 58 percent, just under the national average. Harold Washington College, on the other hand, requires entering students only to have a high school diploma, and its students graduate at a rate of 18 percent.

For most students who qualify for UIC, then, it could be critical to their success to see Harold Washington as being not a “match” but an “undermatch” — a school less selective than they should aspire to. And while students and families may ultimately have valid reasons for choosing either one of these institutions, a conversation about graduation rates is critical.

Such an absence also explains why the report can list obviously high-risk opportunities like Harris-Stowe State University in St. Louis as a “match” for almost every student receiving this report. While this institution reports an average GPA for incoming students of 2.69, it also maintains the dubious honor of a graduation rate of 5.6 percent. The presence of this college’s name on a district publication, and its accompanying label of “match,” clearly suggests that CPS thinks that Harris-Stowe can be an appropriate destination for our students. Given the price and the risk involved, we would never recommend such a school to our students.

The nonchalance with which CPS has presented 40,000 students with a troublesome list of college options is disappointing. While much productive work has been spent over the years in supporting our students’ college enrollment, it is clear that we must pay more attention to where we are helping students enroll than ever before. We know the district can do better, and we hope it will.

Andrew Johnson is a National Board-certified social sciences teacher. Ryan Kinney is a professional school counselor who has previously served as a CPS master counselor. Both are credentialed college and career access advisors at Westinghouse College Prep in East Garfield Park.

upheaval

Frustrations over principal turnover flare up at IPS School 43

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 43

It began with a tame slideshow presentation about hiring a new principal at School 43. But the Wednesday night meeting soon spiraled into a venting session — as parents and teachers pleaded with Indianapolis Public Schools to send in more staff.

Bakari Posey, the principal of School 43, departed for another job last week in the latest upheaval at the school, which is also known as James Whitcomb Riley. The assistant principal, Endia Ellison, has taken over in an interim capacity, as the district searches for a new leader for the school, which has faced significant turnover in recent years.

“This school needs help,” said Natasha Milam, who has three children at School 43, which serves about 450 students in prekindergarten to eighth-grade. “We need you all to listen. And we need you all to hear us.”

Milam, who volunteers at the school, said that because the building does not have enough staff to handle behavior problems, students are suspended far too often — meaning students are at home doing chores or getting into trouble, instead of in class learning.

Many in the neighborhood had hoped Posey, who is from the community, would be able to turn the school around after the previous two school leaders left their posts just months into the job. But under Posey’s leadership, the school continued to struggle on state tests, with just 7 percent of students passing both the math and English exams last year.

And after two-and-a-half years on the job, Posey left and began working this week as assistant principal at Fall Creek Valley Middle School in Lawrence Township. In an email Thursday, Posey said that he left because he thought the position in Lawrence would help him grow professionally and it was closer to his home.

Posey also disputed the picture of School 43 as a campus in crisis. He said this school year, there hasn’t been “turmoil in the school in regards to student behavior,” suspensions were down, and the campus has been “very calm.” (Suspension numbers could not immediately be verified.) He also said that Indianapolis Public Schools provided “great support” to school staff.

Nonetheless, parents and teachers’ at the meeting Wednesday said the school has serious problems.

Ryesha Jackson, a 4th-grade teacher who has been at the school a little over a year, said there are not enough staff to help with student discipline problems. That makes it hard for educators to teach, she said.

“We have fights almost every day,” Jackson said. “I guess my question is, ‘What are we doing right now to support teachers?’”

School 43 is a neighborhood school, on the north side of the district. More than 75 percent of students there are black, and almost 70 percent come from families with incomes so low that they are eligible for free or reduced-price meals — about the district average.

Indianapolis Public Schools interim Superintendent Aleesia Johnson said district and school leaders would work together to develop a plan to address the urgent problems at School 43.

“But what I can’t give you right now is the plan for that help,” she said. “That takes time and coordination with the school staff.”

The district is gathering input about what school community members are looking for in a principal before posting a listing, officials said. Finalists will be interviewed by committees of parents, community members, and school and district staff. The goal is to name a new principal by April.

Also at Wednesday’s meeting was a small contingent from the IPS Community Coalition, a group that is often critical of the Indianapolis Public Schools administration, particularly the district’s partnerships with charter schools.

Michele Lorbieski, a resident from the north side who ran unsuccessfully for the Indianapolis Public Board with the support of the coalition last year, said the district cannot just rely on the next principal to fix the school.

“What I’d hoped to hear tonight was what the school district was doing to put things in place to stop this revolving door of principals,” she said.

District officials did not directly address why turnover has been so high among principals at School 43. But Brynn Kardash, a district official who recently began working with the school, said that the central office is doing more to support it this year.

School 43 was added this year to the transformation zone — an effort to help troubled schools that includes dedicated support and regular visits from a team at the central office, said Kardash, the district’s executive director of schools for the zone. Educators in the zone get additional training, extra planning time, and help analyzing student data, she said.

“The goal is to really support Ms. Ellison in work that she’s doing,” Kardash said, “which then leads to, hopefully, teachers feeling that support in the classroom.”