In the dark

With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Craigmont High School teacher Wayne Oellig helps his students with a biology experiment related to the Aug. 21 solar eclipse.

Sitting on the hot sidewalk outside of Craigmont High School in Memphis, ninth-graders wearing paper lab coats carefully connect a gas sensor to a plastic bottle filled with fresh spinach — a biology experiment that they’ll repeat on Monday during the great American solar eclipse.

The objective is to measure the difference in carbon dioxide emission from a plant on a normal day and during a total solar eclipse.

“That’s crazy we’re experiencing history,” said an enthusiastic Elisha Holmes as he worked Friday with his lab partners. 

Only steps away, a significant teaching tool that’s tailor-made for such an event sits idle. Craigmont’s 40-year-old planetarium is outdated and in need of a modernization costing up to $400,000. Shuttered since 2010, the space is used now as an occasional gathering place for school meetings and for the football team to watch game films.

Principal Tisha Durrah said the excitement of getting 500 safety glasses for students to watch this month’s rare solar phenomenon is bittersweet because the school’s planetarium isn’t being used.

“It’s a missed opportunity, and we don’t want to keep missing it,” she said.

Tennessee is among 14 states in the direct path of the total eclipse, where observers will see the moon completely cover the sun. For Memphis viewers in the state’s southwestern tip, they’ll see about 90 percent of the sun covered. It isn’t likely to happen again in the U.S. until 2024.

“Hopefully for the next solar eclipse, we’ll have it up and running,” Durrah joked this week as her science teachers found other ways to integrate the eclipse into their lessons.

Money raised so far to reopen the planetarium is a drop in the bucket. Craigmont has taken in about $6,000 toward the goal of fully revamping the space, updating technology and making the planetarium sustainable for years to come.

In the meantime, Durrah has contacted alumni and other potential donors in Memphis and beyond, including the New York planetarium of famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Shelby County Schools has started a fund-raising account and is looking into other ways to help.

Durrah wants her students to participate in a penny drive as well. “Many of them don’t even know the planetarium is here,” she said of the unique theater.

Even though he’s found other ways to use the eclipse as a teachable moment, biology teacher Wayne Oellig wishes he could have produced simulations in the school’s planetarium on what a solar eclipse looks like from places like the moon or Mars. With the right software, he could help his students, many of whom come from low-income families, experience what a rainforest or historic battlefield looks like, too.

“You can use it for a whole school experience,” he said.

But the screens on the large dome are stained, and the antiquated projector in the center of the room is stuck in its base. A large device by the control panel looks like a first-generation computer, not a high-tech device that could help the school advance studies in science, technology, engineering and math.

Craigmont could get away with about $60,000 in repairs to make the planetarium operational, but it would be a short-term fix, the principal says. With a full renovation, the district could host tours from other schools, with their fees covering maintenance costs.

Durrah is confident that the investment would pay off. “When our students can relate to real-world experiences, it can enhance what’s going on here at our school,” she said.

Below, watch a video showing teacher Wayne Oellig talk about Craigmont’s planetarium and its possibilities.

With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students from Chalkbeat Tennessee on Vimeo.

grand bargain

Colorado lawmakers think they can still find a school finance fix that eluded them for two years

Two years ago, Colorado lawmakers established a special committee to dig deep into the state’s complex school finance problems and propose legislation to fix at least some of them.

Near the end of their tenure, instead of proposing solutions, lawmakers are asking for more time.

If a majority of legislators agree to keep the committee going, its work will take place in a new political environment. For the past four years, Democrats have controlled the state House and Republicans have controlled the state Senate. The makeup of the committee reflected that partisan split. Now Democrats control both chambers, and they ran on an agenda that included increasing funding for education.

But Amendment 73, a tax increase that would have generated $1.6 billion for schools, failed, leaving lawmakers with roughly the same pot of money they had before.

School district and union leaders have warned against changing the way the state distributes money to schools unless there’s more money in the system. Otherwise, efforts to make the formula fairer will end up reducing funds to some districts. Put another way: They want a bigger pie, not different-sized pieces of the same pie. But Colorado voters didn’t bake a bigger pie.

For state Rep. Alec Garnett, the Denver Democrat who serves as vice chair of the committee, that’s an indication lawmakers need to develop a bipartisan proposal that voters would pass.

“We are where we are because none of the ideas have been right,” he said. “The ideas that have been brought forward have been rejected by the legislature and by the people of Colorado. It’s really important that this committee be seen as the vehicle that will get us a solution.”

Republican state senator-elect Paul Lundeen, the committee chair, said he sees broad consensus that Colorado’s school finance formula needs to put the needs of students rather than districts first.

“I’m an optimist,” he said. “I believe we will achieve a formula that is more student-centered.”

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, agreed that a bipartisan approach is important to showing voters that “all voices were heard,” but she also pointed to a political landscape that has changed. The committee should be bipartisan, she said, “as long as we are able.”

Not everyone thinks it makes sense to keep going.

We obviously support improving our school finance formula and appreciate the work and discussions of the committee, but without meaningful new money, we don’t believe in creating winners and losers,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “This is a new day. It’s time to get fresh perspectives from a new legislature. We believe the committee should not continue and is outdated. It is no closer to real funding solutions than when it started two years ago.”

A representative of the Colorado Association of School Executives, which represents superintendents, said the organization would take up this question with its members later in the month.

Discussions among lawmakers on the committee have been frustrating and circular at times, with consensus elusive not only on the solutions to the problem but on which problem is the most important to address. A consulting firm that worked with the committee for most of that two-year period ultimately failed to produce the simulation model lawmakers hoped to use to test new funding formulas because a key staff member left. Then decisions got put on hold to see how the election would turn out.

Legislators said the last two years of work have not been a waste at all but instead have laid the groundwork for coming discussions. They put on an optimistic face.

“The key is bipartisanship across the board,” Garnett said. “If Republicans and Democrats and the General Assembly say to voters, ‘Here is how we want to change the formula, but we need your help,’ that is the Colorado way.”

Garnett said those have been at the table so far — a reference to school district superintendents who brought their own proposal last year — cannot continue to control the conversation.

“The tables have not been big enough to get support,” he said. “We can’t do this alone, but no one else can do it alone either.”

The committee unanimously supported an extension, but could disagree at the next meeting, set for mid-December, on changing the makeup or scope of the committee. Right now, it has five Democrats and five Republicans, with five members from the House and five from the Senate.

The original authorizing legislation was extremely broad. Zenzinger said it might make sense to set aside issues about which there has been stalemate. That would give Republicans less room to press their priorities.

Also in the mix: governor-elect Jared Polis has made his own education promises, especially funding full-day kindergarten. Some people question whether that’s the best use of scarce education dollars, which they might like to spend on special education or expanding preschool.

Garnett said he doesn’t think asking voters for more money is off the table, but it should be part of a broader conversation about changing constitutional limits on the growth of Colorado’s budget. A new formula could be created with a trigger, should voters agree to that change.

“This challenges everyone,” he said. “It requires Republicans to dig into the crisis, and it requires Democrats to dig into what needs to happen at the classroom level.”

Asked and answered

Are special education reforms moving too slowly? Chicago monitor responds to criticism.

PHOTO: Getty Images

Just four months into her role as the powerful independent monitor overseeing efforts to reform special education in Chicago Public Schools, Laura Boedeker already faces angry, public criticism.

The state created the monitor’s office earlier this year after a public inquiry found that Chicago was systematically delaying and denying educational services — guaranteed by federal law — to special-needs students. But on Monday, advocates for special education charged that Boedeker and her superiors at the Illinois State Board of Education have failed on many counts to improve services and to communicate with parents.

At the same time, the advocates released findings of a survey of 800 parents and teachers that backed their charges. The next day, Chicago parents finally received an email from Boedeker and her boss, state board General Counsel Stephanie Jones, that linked to updated special education protocols and parent trainings, and suggested that the state was working on a plan for families who want to file grievances.

In an interview with Chalkbeat on Tuesday afternoon, Boedeker responded to the criticism, described the work she’s done, and outlined what’s ahead.

What exactly is your job?

Being that one person in ISBE who is dedicated to overseeing, correcting, and addressing concerns about special education in Chicago Public Schools.

Do parents know you exist?

I hope so. They seem to. The word is getting out there, I can tell that.

We’re getting more attendance at our parent workshop sessions, and there’s a new topic every month. I’m seeing more parent emails. Not so much in the sense of  “I’m complaining about services,” but “I wanted to let you know this is something going on at my school.”

Why did it take several months to introduce yourself to parents and tell them what you’re doing as monitor?

We really wanted to.

But where it got really complicated is we really wanted all the information to be in the letter, including the student-specific corrective action, rather than sending out two letters. We also saw delays in trying to come to an agreement on language along with the advocate groups as well. It was hard to reach an agreement about not just appropriate language, but the level of the language of the letter.

A survey released this week indicated that special education reform in Chicago has been slow and under-resourced. How do you respond to that?

We are talking about very pervasive, systemic issues that were already problematic before the advocates submitted their letter last November [an action that helped put in motion events that led to the state monitor overseeing Chicago schools]. This is going to take a long time. There’s been a lot of broken trust between parents and schools, parents and central office, parents and administrators.

There’s a lot of restoration and repair we need to address even before we can go in and dig really deep into those corrections.

And as far as resources go, we have been wanting to take this first month or two to get a better idea of where I need more assistance. That’s something you’re not going to know until you start the job, when school is in session. We have regional offices that we work with and that I will be partnering with as specific to CPS. As far as my surrounding staff goes, that’s something that I’m discussing with [the office of the general counsel].

How many schools have you visited?

A small handful — less than 10 so far. That’s something we’re just starting to schedule because we’ve been getting a lot of feedback over the first two months of school, so we now have some action items, some investigatory points. I’ve had a lot of district representatives go into schools and do investigations. My plan is to go in and see if I’m seeing the same things they are reporting.

From the schools you’ve been to, what have you seen?

What’s been fascinating is that there’s so many stakeholders in special education. At the center of everything is the student, of course, and then you have the laws that surround special education — federal and state laws. And then you have a group of all these adults that have different understanding of special education. Even if they have the same understanding, they have different interpretations and beliefs about how things should be done.

So it’s really about getting inside of that story. For example: At a school I went to last week, I [received a] lot of staff outreach. And if I’m just going on the staff outreach, then I think the principal is assigning special education teachers to gen ed classrooms when a teacher doesn’t show up. But when we got in there, it was a little different than what was portrayed via the staff.

What was happening?

In this particular instance, four teachers called off that day, so they had four absences they were trying to deal with. It came down to [the principal asking special education teachers] can you please go to this classroom, unless or until we get a substitute who is arriving within the next 10 minutes, so these students aren’t alone without an adult.

What are some other concerns you’ve heard from schools you’ve visited?

Paraprofessionals being assigned to roles that aren’t IEP-based [referring to individualized education programs, which schools must create for each special-education student]. For example, covering lunchroom duty. That’s not a proper use of a paraprofessional.

A lot of scheduling concerns go back to schools being trained to properly schedule their teachers, so if a teacher does call off there can be a better contingency plan for covering those students and classes.

Messaging to IEP teams. Making sure the right people are in an IEP meeting for the duration of the meeting. We’ve been really hammering home the message that the only person that can excuse a member from an IEP meeting is a parent. But sometimes we have reports that the principal directed teachers to go somewhere else. So we have to really train principals on the law, and proper use of the teachers.

In the advocates’ survey, three out of four teachers reported knowing one or more students were not receiving services due to staffing shortages. What can you do about that?

Let’s take the example of a principal taking a special education teacher and sending them to a gen ed class because they need an adult in the room.

As I was telling the principal, that’s when your scheduling needs to be really tight so you have the flexibility to come up with a contingency plan. You know teachers are going to be out. It’s kind of hard to have a contingency plan for four teachers that are out, but one or two, there are ways to get creative. You can split up a gen ed class and integrate them into a few other age-appropriate classes for instruction, or bring them into a large group and do a social emotional learning circle that addresses a current academic issue.

Your first or second solution should not be going to the special ed teacher.

A lot of the inquiry boils down to this: students who have needs being delayed or denied services. Do you see that’s still the case at CPS from what you can tell so far?

Issues of delays and denials of services — such as paraprofessional assistance, separate day school, transportation — those have dissipated some. From the data we’ve pulled and from the feedback from schools and parents, those are not nearly as big an issue as they were before, primarily because those blocks that were put on the electronic system were lifted.

Before, the only way transportation could be added to an IEP was if a district rep was there to approve it, and that’s no longer the case. Most of the power has gone back into the hands of the IEP teams, which is exactly what the public inquiry recommended.

What should the student-specific corrective action process look like, and how does it compare with what’s going on now?

We’ve been discussing this process with an office within the U.S. Department of Education. One thing they have been very clear on is that IEP teams need to be front and center of that decision. They’re the ones on the front lines with these students, so the Education Department is insistent that the IEP teams are involved when we’re talking about sending notices out to families, alerting them that you may have a child affected by the public inquiry.

That leads us to identifying who that class of students is, and then after we have those families and students identified, that’s when the IEP team comes in to say, “Yes, we do know there was a delay or break in services — what was the harm to that student?”

We hope to provide them with a set of instructions, like, “Here are the talking points, and if you find the student was harmed, here’s a menu of remedies that would be appropriate.”

Those are the conversations we’re working through right now with the department of education, CPS, the advocate representatives, and ISBE. As you can imagine, those are some pretty hefty and lengthy conversations. We’re all trying to get on the same page, and all trying to come to an agreement about what that would look like. But also, what’s fiscally responsible?

This is a three-year process. What should parents and students expect to happen between now and the end of the school year?

We’re holding schools more accountable now and we have them on our radar.

There’s going to be a lot more eye-opening information that emerges from this role, and it’s the first time it’s really been done in this way. This is truly a way for one person to explore CPS through the special education lens like nobody has ever done before. I find that really exciting.