reality check

For high school students, school choice is hard to come by

Is there school choice in New York City? It depends whom you ask.

Ask in Harlem, and members of Harlem Parents United, a group organized by charter school operator Eva Moskowitz, might tell you that there is: They have all chosen charter schools for their children and are aggressively pushing the neighborhood’s families to have even more options. They have allies in Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who count increasing school choice as a cornerstone of their reforms.

But ask a high school student who wants to change schools, and you might get another answer entirely. According to an article in the New York Post, ninth grader Kimselle Castanos said she asked the Department of Education for a transfer dozens of times but didn’t get one until she was assaulted by students from another school in the building. The DOE thinks the Post got some major facts wrong, such as how many times Kimselle e-mailed the chancellor, officials told me today. But even if it did, the real story remains that in a system that boasts about the choices open to students, Kimselle and her family felt stuck in a school that wasn’t right for her.

I heard from countless parents, students, and advocates desperately seeking school transfers when I worked at Insideschools, through the hotline run by parent organization Advocates for Children. Callers reported that their transfer requests, particularly at the high school level, had been denied even though they had compelling reasons for seeking them. Those calls continue to pour in, my former colleague Pamela Wheaton, Insideschools’ executive director, told me today.

“For whatever reason, it has become increasingly difficult, almost impossible, to get a transfer to another regular high school,” Wheaton said.

The decline in transfers coincided with a 2003 change in how the DOE handles high school enrollment. Before then, principals could mutually agree to release and accept a student. But that year, the DOE centralized high school enrollment, and principals no longer had discretion to accept transfers themselves. Since then, high school students have been permitted to change schools only in a limited number of circumstances: if their school is failing under either the city’s or the state’s accountability systems (only 13 of the city’s 500-plus high schools are eligible); if their commute takes longer than 1.5 hours, if a doctor says a transfer is medically necessary, or if staying in the school puts a student in danger.

Limiting the reasons for which transfers are granted is educationally sound, said Andy Jacob, a DOE spokesman. “It wouldn’t be practical and it wouldn’t be beneficial for a student’s education to change schools every single year,” he said.

But a policy designed to keep students in their original school isn’t always in students’ best interests, Wheaton said. A student claiming she deosn’t feel safe in her school can’t get a transfer approved without providing the DOE with an official police report documenting an incident. Kimselle Castanos was finally able to furnish a report only after she was assaulted inside her school building.

“That’s a huge problem with the DOE. Unless you’re actually assaulted, it’s basically impossible to get a safety transfer,” Wheaton said. “It’s kind of a Catch-22. If you’re feeling threatened, that’s not enough.”

Students who enter a high school only to find it doesn’t offer what they need — picture a a student at a small high school who tires of the limited course offerings — are also trapped. One escape route is participating in the high school admissions process all over again, which all ninth graders are allowed to do.

“But not everybody can tell in the first two months of ninth grade that a school isn’t right for them,” Wheaton said.

Another option for some students is to enroll at one of the DOE’s transfer high schools, which serve teens who have not been successful at their original schools.

DOE officials say no regulation exists to prevent high school students from trying to transfer even if their reasons aren’t typically accepted. “You can walk into any Borough Enrollment Office and apply for a transfer for any reason,” said Jacob. “But relatively speaking there are not a lot of transfers” for reasons other than safety and accountability, he said.

So has school choice increased under Klein’s leadership?

Absolutely, Jacob said. He called the high school application process “the best example of school choice in the city”: “You can apply to any school in the city. Not only that, but there are many more schools to choose from.” More than 200 new high schools have opened since 2002.

Wheaton said the situation is more complicated.

“There are more options at the entry level,” she said, noting that the number of high schools, transfer schools, and charter schools have all increased, and that this year’s new kindergarten enrollment process at least allows families to apply to schools outside of their zone. “But there is not increased choice if you’re in a school and want a transfer.”

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.