FOCUS DC News Wire 3/18/2014

  • Catania to propose sweeping special-education legislation
  • Illogical hostility toward charter schools
  • Exclusive interview with Kristin Scotchmer, executive director Mundo Verde PCS [Mundo Verde PCS and DC International PCS mentioned]
  • You're Invited! FOCUS Gala 2014
 
The Washington Post
By Emma Brown
March 18, 2014
 
D.C. Council Member David A. Catania plans to introduce three bills Tuesday meant to overhaul special education in the District by speeding up the delivery of services to students, strengthening parents' rights in disputes with schools and pushing charter schools to improve their capacity to teach students with disabilities.
 
Catania (I-At Large), who chairs the council's Education Committee and is running for mayor, said the legislation is a response to a "crisis" in D.C. special education.
 
"Students are not getting the supports they need, families feel powerless in ensuring appropriate services for their children, teachers and principals don't have the resources they need, and weak procedural protections result in limited accountability and transparency," Catania said in a statement.
 
The District has struggle for decades to adequately serve special-needs children. While the city has made important strides in recent years, it has yet to fully emerge from court oversight, and its special-education services continue to fall short on many fronts, according to parents and advocates.
 
Catania's legislative package includes several measures that activists have sought for years, such as cutting in half the amount of time that schools have to evaluate a child who has been referred for special-education services. The District allows schools to take up to 120 days for that initial evaluation, the longest in the nation.
 
Another measure would further expand the number of children younger than 3 years old who are eligible for special services, building upon an expansion initiated last year by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D). Advocates say such early intervention can change the trajectory of many children's lives, catching them up to their peers before they enter kindergarten.
 
The legislation also attempts to change the balance of power between families and schools, giving parents the right to bring independent experts into the classroom to observe their children and allowing parents who bring successful complaints against schools to recover expert witness fees.
 
Currently, parents bear the burden of proof in disputes over services their children should receive; under Catania's proposal, that burden would lie with schools. The hearing officers who decide such cases would no longer be housed in and paid by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, which is overseen by the mayor and which many parents believe is biased. Instead, the officers would be in the independent Office of Administrative Hearings.
 
Last June, Catania introduced a package of seven education bills he developed with the help of a law firm hired with private donations.
 
This time, he and his staff developed the legislation in partnership with the Children's Law Center, a nonprofit organization that represents and advocates for special-needs children. Executive Director Judith Sandalow said the proposals grow out of intensive reviews of other states' laws and interviews with dozens of advocacy organizations and individuals, including teachers, parents and special-education experts.
 
"This really does bring in both D.C.'s communitywide views, as well as expertise from around the country," Sandalow said.
 
The measures may give parents more avenues to sue schools for failing to provide services, but Sandalow said that's not the point. "Fundamentally we don't want to litigate. All of these reforms are aimed at reducing litigation and improving special education," she said. "It doesn't benefit anybody to litigate."
 
The legislation also addresses the ability of the city's fast-growing charter schools to serve children with special needs. Currently, charters can elect to transfer legal responsibility for their students' special education services to the traditional school system, which school system officials and advocates say is unfair and unworkable. Catania's legislation would end that practice, making all charter schools responsible for their own students.
 
Charters would also be allowed to establish a preference in the enrollment lottery for students with particular disabilities, a measure that some advocates say would help small schools better predict students' needs and develop programs to serve them, but that also carries the potential for discrimination. Charter schools are currently not allowed to ask about a student's special education status before that student enrolls.
 
In recent years the city has improved its compliance with federal special-education law and has added many more classrooms dedicated to children with specific disabilities.
 
The number of families bringing due process complaints has declined significantly, as has the number of complaints that have advanced to an administrative hearing. The Gray administration is on track to deliver on a promise of cutting in half the number of students who go to private school at taxpayer expense because their needs can't be met in public schools.
 
But the city has yet to fully emerge from court oversight of its services, and it remains a "high risk" federal grantee, subject to additional monitoring and oversight by the U.S. Education Department. Many families complain that they can't get the quality services they believe their children need, and that students have been returned to public schools that aren't equipped to serve them.
 
Achievement among special-education students remains far below average. Fewer than half finish high school on time; 19 percent are proficient in reading, according to 2013 city tests, and 24 percent are proficient in math.
 
The Washington Post
By Richard Cohen
March 17, 2014
 
In the war between the rich and the poor, I'm enlisting on the side of the underdog - the rich. What a drubbing they've been taking! Across the nation, but particularly in cities such as New York and Washington, the rich are incessantly accused of being slyly manipulative and self-serving. For instance, they support charter schools. Apparently, there is nothing worse.
 
I am mystified. Charter schools are not private schools. They are free public schools open to any student, usually by lottery. Some rich people support them, provide funds for special programs and, in return, get vilified for their efforts. One columnist, citing the pay package of charter-school chief executives, referred to a "gilded crusade," another to an "all-out campaign by the elite." You would think we're talking about the "gilded" and "elite" getting their kids into some fancy school. Instead, they're helping poor children.
 
Take Carl Icahn. You know him as a corporate raider, which he is. Less well known is that he created and supports seven charter schools in New York City, all of them in the Bronx "” all of them with student bodies reflective of the city's poorest borough.
 
Or take the Harlem Village Academies. Katie Couric is on the board. So are Hugh Jackman, John Legend and Rupert Murdoch. It pays its chief executive $499,000 annually, but this is private money, and Harlem Village has been raising test scores "” in other words, giving student after student a better chance of succeeding. What's that worth?
 
"Giving back" is a tiresome cliche, but you'd be surprised how many people have made it a personal obligation. I've met Icahn just casually, and yet I know a bit about him. We both attended an unheralded genius factory named Far Rockaway High School. (Three Nobel Prize winners!) He's just a product of the middle class who was fortunate enough to get a great public education and wants to re-create the conditions that made him a success. This is hardly a moral failing.
 
As always with the rich, they want things done their way. When it comes to schools, they want either no teachers union or a pleasantly pliable one. I understand. Charter schools are very tough on teachers - a schoolroom version of survival of the fittest. The union is out to protect the weakest teachers, even miserable ones. Like the National Rifle Association, the union fears the slippery slope: Ban assault weapons, and next it will be handguns. Fire a teacher for poor performance, and next comes dismissal for something trivial.
 
When the rich insist that lower taxes would do wonders for the poor, the orphaned and the grievously widowed, I detect the faint aroma of self-interest. But when they plump for charter schools, the only ulterior motive you can find is that down the road, years from now, society will benefit and so, as night follows day, will they. I can live with that.
 
The United States has always had a love-hate relationship with its rich. But lately, there's been more hate than love. Some of this is deserved - tell me again what's moral about short-selling stock and why hedge-fund managers should enjoy a lower tax rate than their secretaries? But some of it reflects middle-class stagnation and the widening gulf between the rich and everyone else. Bill de Blasio ran for mayor of New York promising to narrow the gap. He won going away, and the rest of the country has paid attention.
 
De Blasio seems cool on charter schools. He has said they have a "destructive impact" on the school system and, in his campaign, demanded that they pay rent for using public school facilities. As a result, charters have become emblematic of the "two cities" mantra - one really rich, the other disproportionately poor. The rich are characterized as having their way with the school system for their own benefit. The hostility is so illogical it has to be based on raw resentment. Pardon me for suspecting that some charter school critics would rather hurt the rich than help the poor.
 
New York is witnessing progressivism run amok. So far the damage has been minimal and the pushback has been fierce, but charters are in a real fight. Say what you will about New York or Washington charters, but by the usual measurements - test scores, etc. - they are succeeding, some of them stunningly so. Maybe in time the gains will prove ephemeral and failure is just over the horizon. Still, that's better than the old system. With it, failure was a certainty.
 
The Examiner
By Mark Lerner
March 17, 2014
 
At the end of a warmer than usual day in this cold Washington, D.C. winter I entered the 16th Street temporary location of Mundo Verde Public Charter School to have a conversation with Kristin Scotchmer, the school's executive director. Ms. Scotchmer is one of the original five founders of Mundo Verde, which in 2008 grew to a diverse group of two dozen parents who were seeking high quality bilingual educational opportunities for their children. "We saw the quality education available at the District's Expeditionary Learning and bilingual schools," Ms. Scotchmer explained. "We dreamed that our children might benefit from the same, only to realize with despair how few seats were really available. Rather than leaving the District to gain access to high performing schools, we committed ourselves to expanding the number of quality seats available here."
 
Mundo Verde opened with 120 Pre-Kindergarten to Kindergarten students in 2011 and now goes up to the second grade with a total student body of 274. The school will eventually go through high school, as one of five members of DC International. From its beginning the charter has employed an Expeditionary Learning framework with a focus on dual language immersion and sustainability. The executive director detailed the connection, emphasizing that how children learn is as important as what they learn. "We are especially concerned with our students' social and emotional development. When students feel safe and connected to one another, they are better able to take on risks, whether that is learning in a second language or grappling to find a solution to a rigorous problem. The confidence of knowing another language, learning about different cultures, and regularly engaging in authentic problem solving becomes a platform for lifelong leadership."
 
Sustainability at Mundo Verde is woven through its operations and curriculum, going beyond a concern over the environment. Ms. Scotchmer related that, "The Education for Sustainability Learning Standards cultivate a deep understanding of the impact one person can have. With young children, this starts with the learning that their actions are of consequence and with opportunities for leadership in the classroom. Having developed an individual connection to other people, children will transfer that learning and leadership to other time zones, generations, and life cycles. Eventually the impact is global."
 
Ms. Scotchmer's leadership experience is rooted in community-based efforts and nonprofit management. She grew up in Guatemala as the daughter of community organizers. Her education at the University of Chicago and the University of Texas at Austin focused on political science and Latin American Studies. The Mundo Verde executive director went on to become Mosaica's director of organizational development, and immediately prior to her current position, managed grant making for the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region (CFNCR). Central to Mundo Verde leadership is co-founder and educator Principal Dahlia Aguilar, a Teach for America and New Leaders for New Schools alumni, whose most recent previous role was as assistant principal at the Columbia Heights Educational Campus.
 
I inquired of Ms. Scotchmer why it is so important that the school concentrates on Expeditionary Learning. "Expeditionary Learning measures student success through academic achievement, quality of student work, and evidence of engagement. It is successful in urban, rural, and suburban schools and at every grade level." she immediately replied. "The emphasis on engagement aligns directly with best practice in bilingual education. Through interdisciplinary projects exploring sustainability, students connect to real-world audiences and issues. Expeditionary learning is really a perfect fit."
 
I was fortunate in that one of the Kindergarten rooms I visited was filled with work centered on the topic of their expedition: corn brings us to the table. The Mundo Verde executive director revealed that students had studied the life cycle of corn and how it is utilized in food. The kids visited local area restaurants to investigate how corn is present in meals offered on their menus. Math and language arts were woven throughout the expedition from graphs made of corn kernels, to measurement of ingredients in recipes, to creating corn-based menus, and practicing ordering from them.
 
Joining us in the discussion at this point was Topaz Terry, the school's director of climate and culture. The two leaders explained to me how the language immersion works in practice. In Pre-Kindergarten through Kindergarten classes are held entirely in Spanish. A special music or gardening class will provide at most a half hour of English during the day. Class size is exceptionally small with 18 to 22 students in a room. Each class has a lead teacher and a fellow. Ms. Scotchmer and Ms. Terry described three year olds as learning a new language much easier, and without the frustration, that older children experience because language learning is the daily work of young children.
 
Ms. Scotchmer pointed to evidence that students in language immersion programs develop greater cognitive and nonverbal problem-solving abilities. She also highlighted the benefits of immersion for native Spanish speakers. "In full immersion programs, children often develop initial literacy in the immersion language. Many processes critical to the ability to read, such as decoding, transfer from one language to another. This affect can be particularly beneficial for immersion students whose first language is Spanish, when compared to their peers participating in other programs." Classes are taught fifty percent in English and fifty percent in Spanish when students reach the first grade. Resources are available for pupils if they need help learning either English or Spanish. The school's aim is to for students to be biliterate in English and Spanish by the fifth grade.
 
I then asked Ms. Terry if early childhood education makes a difference to a child's academic levels later on in their academic experience. She replied without hesitation, "If you are just teaching them that one plus one equals two then I don't believe it is. We are concerned with developing our youngest students' behavioral and emotional skills, which makes them better able to learn, no matter what the content. We therefore look to cultivate character traits such as perseverance, stewardship, habits of community, and craftsmanship."
 
The program appears to be succeeding at a high level. Mundo Verde's 2011-12 and 2012-13 accountability reports to the D.C. Public Charter School Board indicate that student progress and achievement are significantly above goals in the areas of social emotional, language, literacy, and math. I requested that Ms. Scotchmer explain to me what makes her charter so successful.
 
"It is a joyous culture. There is quite a bit of joyous play occurring here on a daily basis. Expeditionary Learning naturally leads to kids being actively involved in what is going on around them and with each other. The creative play is fundamental to the development of intrinsic motivation, self awareness, and the ability to innovate and solve problems. Institutionally, we also place a great emphasis on transparency. For example, we welcomed writer Sam Chaltain's request to spend time in our school in our first year, as part of the research for his upcoming book Our School: Searching for Community in the Era of Choice. We joined the common school lottery this year because it is a great way to develop consistent, transparent information about the supply and demand of educational opportunities available to families in the District."
 
The future looks exceedingly bright for Mundo Verde. In February 2013, Mayor Gray announced that the charter had been awarded the former J.F. Cook Elementary School at 30 P Street, N.W. Now a year later, the school has finalized the terms of a long-term lease, closed on $13.5 million in financing, and is schedule to move into the renovated building this summer. The new site will allow the school to expand from its current 20,000 square feet to 50,000 square feet and will be a demonstration site for operational and educational sustainability. Eventually, the student body will grow to 500 pupils. Furthermore, Mundo Verde is part of the consortium of bilingual schools that is forming the new sixth through twelfth grade D.C. International Public Charter School. All of these positive indicators may be reflective in the approximately 1,100 of kids on last year's enrollment waiting list. It is also an extremely good indicator when the school's founding executive director and founding principal both send their own children to Mundo Verde.
 
The Meridian International Center
Thursday, March 27, 2014
6:00 PM to 10:00 PM

 

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