luck of the draw

A second chance in HS admissions for charter school hopefuls

Steven Taveras holds up a card indicating that he was the first student selected for Believe Southside Charter High School.
Steven Taveras holds up a card indicating that he was the first student selected for Believe Southside Charter High School.

Last week, most eighth graders in the city found out which high school had accepted them. Tonight, hundreds of eighth graders in Brooklyn learned whether they would be lucky enough to have a charter high school choice for this fall as well.

I joined hundreds of the hopeful eighth graders for an admission lottery trifecta held in Greenpoint tonight, the first time charter schools could legally conduct their lotteries. The students had all applied for one or more of the schools in the brand-new Believe High Schools Network. The first school in that network, Williamsburg Charter High School, opened in 2004, and two more, Believe Northside and Believe Southside, are set to open this fall. Before the lottery, WCS founding principal Eddie Calderon-Melendez told me that over 700 students had submitted applications for the 500 available spots, some applying to two or even all three of the schools.

“I can feel how nervous you are,” said City Council member Diana Reyna, who ceremonially drew the first names in the lottery, to a chorus of agreement. “My heart is racing as much as yours.”

The first two names drawn were for students who weren’t present. But when Steven Taveras heard his name called to be the first student selected for Believe Southside, he leapt from his seat and bounded to the front of the auditorium, where he was immediately pulled into a round of handshakes and photographs.

A few minutes later, the IS 318 student was still beaming, but he said he wasn’t sure why he’d be giving up his seat at nearby Progress High School. “Mommy picked everything,” his mother, Maria Taveras, interjected. She said her younger son was thriving at his charter school, Williamsburg Collegiate, and she wanted the same kind of disciplined environment for Steven. “It’s a better beginning for him,” she said.

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Alida Mayer, right, celebrates her acceptance to Williamsburg Charter High School at tonight's lottery.

Alida Mayer was the next student selected. The eighth grader at St. Nicholas School came with two close friends to the lottery, which she said she entered after attending a WCS information session. She said the teachers all seemed to have a good sense of humor, unlike the teachers at her Catholic school. She told me she had been accepted to a vocational school in Queens but would most likely have been headed to St Joseph’s, another parochial school, if she hadn’t gotten lucky in the lottery tonight.

As the numbers neared 300, the limit for how many students will enroll at the flagship school in the fall, an anxious silence settled over the remaining families. Those whose names weren’t drawn will be placed on a waiting list, which Calderon-Melendez told me has stretched in the past to 2,000 names. The waitlist rarely moves, he told me, but parents still call every year to make sure their children are still on it. “Those are sad phone calls,” he said.

 The 350th name called tonight was Ruth Igbayo’s. The eighth grader at MS 61 was accepted to the well regarded science program at Abraham Lincoln High School, but she said she would hold out for a seat in one of the Believe charter schools. “I heard they are for more gifted students,” she said. “I want to take more accelerated classes.”

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.