question time

New York’s special education district gets a new leader and a charge to blur its borders

PHOTO: Department of Education
Ketler Louissaint

Until recently, the logic behind New York City’s approach to educating students with severe disabilities had often boiled down to this: Sometimes, segregation is a good thing.

But as more of those students have been funneled into traditional classrooms over the past five years, what happens to the programs that were initially designed only for the most profoundly disabled?

That’s one of the overarching questions facing Ketler Louissaint, the newly appointed superintendent of District 75. The little-discussed group of about 60 schools scattered across more than 310 locations serves 24,000 students who have such complicated disabilities that they cannot be taught effectively in mainstream schools.

Louissaint started his career 30 years ago as a paraprofessional in a special education classroom in Jamaica, Queens, and was partly inspired to work with high-needs students because his sister is disabled. “I really fell in love with the students there, and I know that I needed to step up and make a difference in their lives the same way I would have wanted to come in and help my sister,” Louissaint said in a recent interview.

As Louissaint begins to permanently lead District 75 – after briefly serving as its interim leader replacing education department veteran Gary Hecht – here are four questions he will face from advocates, parents and reporters:

1. What is District 75’s mission in the context of reforms designed to put more special needs students into mainstream classrooms?

When education officials started pushing more students with disabilities into their local schools five years ago, that effort didn’t focus on students with the most complicated needs. Now, creating a more fluid relationship between District 75 and other schools is one of the system’s top special education priorities, Louissaint said, along with creating more vocational opportunities.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña echoed that philosophy Monday in testimony to city lawmakers. “One of the things I’ll be discussing with [Louissaint] is how do we integrate District 75 students and programs into the life of the public schools,” she said. “If there’s a District 75 student who’s perfectly capable of doing the math curriculum or getting involved in after-school programs, that should all come together.”

2. Is it possible the district will shut down entirely?

Fariña said Monday the changes at District 75 don’t mean the city is considering doing away with the district, and Louissaint underscored that point. “I have had many conversations with the chancellor and she has always confirmed to me that she’s not about to dismantle District 75,” he said.

Advocates who have been pushing for more inclusion for the district’s students say it should continue to exist, even though figuring out exactly who it is for “is a really hard question,” according to Maggie Moroff, special education policy coordinator at Advocates for Children. Even though District 75 might sometimes operate “a little bit counter to theories of inclusion, it’s also necessary for many,” she added.

3. How do we know whether District 75 is actually serving students well?

Parents and advocates have long criticized the city for not releasing public measures of success or failure for the district, as it does for the rest of the city’s schools. That’s about to change: By the end of this school year, the district will generate “fair and useful reports to best inform students, parents, educators and community members on how their District 75 program is performing,” according to spokeswoman Toya Holness.

Accountability reports for other schools are based on several measures including school surveys, an evaluation by an experienced educator, and test scores. How those measures could be used to assess District 75 schools is unclear.

4. Black and Latino students represent 78 percent of District 75 but just 66 percent of the rest of the system. What explains the discrepancy and are district leaders trying to address it?

The district has sometimes been viewed as a dumping ground for students with emotional or behavioral problems, but who have no cognitive deficits, Advocates for Children’s Moroff said. That attitude could disproportionately affect black and Latino students.

Louissaint responded to those numbers by pointing out they reflect national trends. (Indeed, black and Latino students across the country are overrepresented in special education by a wide margin.) “I don’t look at my students through race or religion or whatever,” he added. “I look at each student individually, what the student needs to ensure that whatever the need is, that’s what we provide the student with.”


Memphis candidate no longer in running to lead Achievement School District

The only Memphis applicant to lead Tennessee’s school turnaround district is no longer under consideration.

Keith Sanders told Chalkbeat Thursday that Education Commissioner Candice McQueen called him with the news that he would not advance in the application process to become superintendent of the Achievement School District. Sanders is a Memphis-based education consultant and former Memphis school principal who most recently was chief officer of school turnaround at the Delaware Department of Education.

The state later confirmed that Sanders will not advance, citing concerns from the search firm hired to find the next leader of the turnaround district.

In a March 21 letter to McQueen, the search firm highlighted Sanders’ time as a charter school leader in New Orleans as a reason he should not advance. Sanders co-founded Miller-McCoy Academy, an all-boys public school that closed in 2014. The school was academically low-performing, and Sanders and his co-founder left the school before it shuttered amidst allegations of financial mismanagement and cheating, according to the letter.

“Given the visibility of the ASD role, I think there are too many questions about his time at Miller-McCoy for him to be credible,” wrote Mollie Mitchell, president of The K-12 Search Group, in the letter.

The announcement comes a day after Stephen Osborn, a finalist for the position, visited Memphis for a second time to meet with local stakeholders. Osborn is currently the chief of innovation for Rhode Island’s Department of Education.

Sanders said he was shocked to be eliminated, as just weeks earlier he was told that he would advance as one of two finalists.

“I was given an itinerary for two days next week for my final interview process,” Sanders said. “I’m shocked that I’ve been suddenly and abruptly removed from this process. I want to be clear in this community I reside in — I did not withdraw.”

In addition to Sanders and Osborn, other candidates under consideration are Brett Barley, deputy superintendent for student achievement with the Nevada Department of Education, and Adam Miller, executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice at the Florida Department of Education.

McQueen emphasized during her Memphis visit on Wednesday that the superintendent search is still in progress.

“We certainly have an expectation that we’ll bring in others,” she told reporters. “At this point, we wanted to move one forward while we’re continuing to solicit additional information from the search firm on current candidates as well as other candidates who have presented themselves over last couple of weeks.”

The new superintendent will succeed Malika Anderson, who stepped down last fall after almost two years at the helm. Kathleen Airhart, a longtime deputy at the State Department of Education, has served as interim leader.

The job will require overseeing 30 low-performing schools, the majority of which are run by charter organizations in Memphis.

Editor’s note: We have updated this story with comment from the Tennessee Department of Education. 

Play nice

How can Michigan schools stop skinned knees and conflict? Use playtime to teach students kindness

PHOTO: Amanda Rahn
Macomb Montessori kindergartner London Comer plays with a ball during a Playworks session at her school.

Kindergartners play four square, jump rope and line up in two rows with outstretched arms to bump a ball during recess. What’s unusual is that the four- and five-year-olds don’t fight over balls or toys, and when one child gets upset and crosses her arms, a fifth-grade helper comes over to talk to her.

This is a different picture from last spring, when the students at the Macomb Montessori school in Warren played during recess on a parking lot outside. The skinned knees and broken equipment were piling up, and school administrators knew something needed to change.

“Recess was pretty chaotic, and it wasn’t very safe,” Principal Ashley Ogonowski said.

The school brought in Playworks, a national nonprofit that uses playtime to teach students how to peacefully and respectfully work together to settle disagreements — also known as social emotional learning, said Angela Rogensues the executive director of the Michigan Playworks branch.

Ogonowski said the change she has seen in her students has been huge. Kids are getting hurt less, and teachers have said they have fewer classroom behavior problems.

The program teaches better behavior through physical activity. Games focus on cooperation, not winners and losers. When tensions rise on the playground, kids are encouraged to “rock, paper, scissors” over conflicts.

Playworks is adamant that their coaches are not physical education teachers, nor are their 30-45 minute structured play periods considered gym class. But the reality is that in schools without them, Playworks is the closest many kids come to receiving physical education.

Macomb Montessori does not have a regular gym teacher, a problem shared by schools across the state and nearly half of the schools in the main Detroit district, and a symptom of a disinvestment in physical education statewide. In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified.

But with Playworks, the 210 elementary-aged children at the school have a daily recess and a weekly class game time lasting about 30 to 45 minutes.

Another benefit of the program is the chance to build leadership skills with upper elementary students chosen to be junior coaches. Shy kids are picked, as are natural leaders who might be using their talents to stir up trouble.

“I made it because I’m really good with kids. I’m nice and kind and I really like the kids,” Samerah Gentry, a fifth-grader and junior coach said. “I’m gaining energy and I’m having fun.”

Research shows that students are benefitting from both the conflict resolution tools and the junior coach program.

“The program model is really solid and there’s so much structure in place, I can’t really think of any drawbacks,” Principal Ogonowski said.

The program, however, is not free.  

Part of the cost is handled on the Playworks side through grants, but schools are expected to “have some skin in the game,” Rogenesus said. The program at Macomb Montessori costs between $60,000 and $65,000, but poor schools can receive a 50 percent subsidy.

The cost hasn’t prevented eight Detroit district schools from paying for the program. Rogenesus said she is talking with Superintendent Nikolai Vitti about putting the program in even more schools next year. He also identified Playworks as one organization that could be brought in to run after-school programs at a time when he’s rethinking district partnerships.

Part of Playworks’ mission is to work together with schools, even if they already have gym and recess in place or plan to hire a physical education teacher.

“PE is a necessary part of their education in the same way social-emotional learning is a necessary part of that education,” she said.