Decision day

Judge: Douglas County schools must pay private school tuition for student at center of special education lawsuit

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

A federal judge ruled Monday in favor of a Douglas County couple who’d sought reimbursement from the Douglas County School District for their son’s education at a private school for students with autism.

In the latest chapter of a landmark special education case, U.S. District Judge Lewis Babcock ordered the 68,000-student district to reimburse the student’s parents for the cost of his placement at the private school as well as attorney fees and litigation costs, according to the Denver Post.

The couple’s attorney estimated the amount the district owed was “in the seven figures,” according to the Post.

The couple said in an email Tuesday morning they were “very pleased” with the district court ruling,

“It is unfortunate this case ever got to this point, frankly,” they wrote. “Our attorney reached out many times over the past 8+ years in an attempt to speak and potentially settle this case out of court, but the school district time and again rejected our overtures to sit down and talk.”

Nearly a decade ago, the couple pulled their fourth-grade son, Endrew, out of his Douglas County elementary school after years with little educational progress. They placed him at a specialized school in Denver — Firefly Autism House — where they saw immediate improvements. Tuition at the school is more than $70,000 a year.

In 2011, they sued the school district in a case known as Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District. Three courts ruled against them before they took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2017.

Monday’s decision comes almost a year after the high court ruled in favor of the couple, saying the Douglas County district had not provided Endrew with a free and appropriate education as mandated by federal law.

While the Supreme Court ruling was hailed as a momentous decision with enormous significance for millions of students with disabilities across the country, it kicked the question of whether the district should repay the family for years of private school back to the lower court. After seven years in the legal system, that question was answered Monday.

The Douglas County School District issued a two-sentence statement in response to the ruling, saying in part, “Earlier today, the District Court issued its ruling in the Endrew F. case. We are in the process of assessing the ruling, along with next steps.”

In their email Tuesday, Endrew’s parents — Joe and Jennifer — said, “Even after the strongly worded unanimous ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court in early 2017, (the district) still stood steadfast in their belief (and made the exact same argument again at the district court last week) that the education they provided – a ‘merely more than de minimis’ education (or barely more than nothing), was good enough.  It’s not good enough, nor has it ever been.”

They added, “Our attorney, Jack Robinson, summed it up perfectly in both our reply brief to the court, and again during the oral argument last week: ‘The school district still just does not get it.’ Hopefully now they do.”

Throughout the case, Jennifer and Joe asked that their last name not be used to protect their family’s privacy.

Read more about Joe and Jennifer’s long journey to the Supreme Court here and their frustration at being portrayed as a school choice success story by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy Devos here.

an hour a day keeps state accountability away

Florida told its low-scoring schools to make their days longer. It helped, new research finds

Students reading at the Book Fair International at Miami Dade College Wolfson Campus. (Photo by: Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images)

Last year, Camille Watkins’s day as a fourth grade teacher got a little longer.

The elementary school where she taught had been named one of Florida’s 300 lowest-performing schools. That meant the school was required to add an extra hour of reading instruction to the day, something Watkins found grueling.

But new research finds that the program really did boost reading scores for students from low-income families. It’s new evidence that lengthening the school day, an approach being taken at schools across the country, can make a difference for students who stand to benefit the most.

In Florida, the extended-day push began in 2012 with the state’s 100 lowest performing schools and expanded to 300 schools in 2014.

“Florida likely made a smart move,” said David Figlio, one of the study’s authors.

The new research looks at that first year of the program, and takes advantage of a natural experiment. At schools with test scores just good enough to miss the cutoff, the students were very similar to students at the schools that scored just poorly enough to qualify. That allowed the researchers to compare both groups of schools over time, knowing that the key difference was the longer school day — one of the first times additional learning time has been studied this way.

What they found was that the extra time paid off, modestly. Over the course of one school year, students’ test scores jumped by the equivalent of one to three months of extra learning. Another way to look at it: The most optimistic estimate is that the program closed about a third of the gap in the reading scores between the best schools in Florida and average schools.

The effects were concentrated among students who consistently qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, students with limited English proficiency, and students whose mothers had teen pregnancies.

Whether adding an extra hour to an affluent school would yield the same effects is unclear, said Figlio, who authored the study with Kristian Holden and Umut Ozek.

Another benefit: The extra hour of class approach provides similar benefits to reducing class sizes at a fraction of the cost. Previous research has estimated that decreasing class size can cost between $2,000 and $4,000 per student each year, while extended day programs cost around $800 per student each year, according to district estimates.

Schools can choose how they work in the extra time, but most schools end their days later. At Rainbow Park Elementary School in Miami, where Watkins taught until June, the extended schedule meant that class began at 8:35 a.m. and finished just after 4 p.m. for second through fifth graders on most days.

Source: National Center for Education Statistics (Graphic: Amanda Zhou/Chalkbeat)

The program also requires students to participate in different types of learning, including working in a small group, during the extra hour of intensive reading help.

Watkins, who taught for 11 years but isn’t returning to the classroom next year, said the most difficult part was adding that hour to the end of the two-and-a-half hours she was already spending on reading and writing skills. Watkins said she tried to keep the class engaging by using a reward system, but students often felt like they had already done the work.

The three-and-a-half hours of reading classes was “the cherry on top” of her decision to leave, Watkins said.

Her experience points to potential weaknesses of programs like Florida’s — that flexibility means not all schools may find a useful way to spend that time, and the extra time on the job can burden the educators tasked with executing it.   

Figlio said that was why he wasn’t sure whether their research would find any effect.

“Just because a state goes and tells a school to do something doesn’t mean there is a lot of guidance about it. It doesn’t mean schools know exactly how to do it,” he said.

College Readiness

Find your Colorado 2018 SAT and PSAT results

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Students work on projects at Academy High School on May 10, 2018 in their Mapleton School District. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

This year, Colorado has a lot more comprehensive data on students who took the SAT and PSAT tests in the spring of 2018.

Use Chalkbeat’s tool below to compare school results to each other or to statewide averages. This tool has results for every public school with ninth-, 10th-, and 11th-graders who took the SAT or PSAT test. It shows the mean score by grades, as well as a growth score.

The growth score is calculated by Colorado officials to show how much a student improved compared to the previous year, regardless of what their achievement was to begin with. Students with similar past achievement are grouped and ranked with a score from 1 to 99. A student with a growth score of 50 is considered to have made a year’s worth of academic progress in a year’s time, while a student with a lower score is considered to have made less than that.

Look back at 2017 results and our coverage here.