how things work

Teachers union sent scripted questions to City Council members

Council Member Simcha Felder displays one of the cue cards a teachers union representative handed him.
Council Member Simcha Felder displays one of the cue cards a teachers union representative handed him.

At today’s education committee hearing, City Council members took turns questioning Department of Education officials on the rise of charters schools. Their questions were passionate, specific, and universally accusatory. They may have also been scripted.

Just before the hearing began, a representative of the city teachers union, which describes itself as in favor of charter schools, discreetly passed out a set of index cards to Council members, each printed with a pre-written question.

One batch of cards offered questions for the Department of Education, all of them challenging the proliferation of charter schools. “Doesn’t the Department have a clear legal and moral responsibility to provide every family in the city guaranteed seats for their children in a neighborhood elementary school?” one card suggested members ask school officials. “Isn’t the fundamental problem here the Department’s abdication of its most important responsibility to provide quality district public schools in all parts of the city?” another card said. (View more of the cards in a slideshow here.)

Several council members picked up on the line of thought. “Shouldn’t we aspire to have every school in the city good enough for parents to feel comfortable sending their children?” Melinda Katz, a Council member from Queens, said in questioning school officials. “I remember when Joel Klein became the chancellor,” the committee chair, Robert Jackson, said. “Back then, he used to talk about making every neighborhood school a good school where every parent would want to send their children. I don’t hear him talk about that anymore.”

Asked about the cards, union president Randi Weingarten provided a statement saying that she regretted the tactic. “We are often asked by the council for information and ideas about various issues. Additionally, when I am available, I often respond to what others testify to. In this instance, I was in Washington and couldn’t be at City Hall,” she said in the statement. “I am proud of the testimony we gave today, but I regret the manner in which our other concerns were shared.”

One of the cue cards provided to City Council members by the teachers union.
One of the cue cards provided to City Council members by the teachers union.

The questions were in line with testimony presented by the union’s vice president, Leo Casey, who said that charter schools can be positive laboratories for innovation — provided that they serve the same students as traditional public schools, that they are held accountable, that their teachers are unionized, and that they don’t replace traditional public schools. The union runs two charter schools and represents teachers at several others. But Casey said that those schools are living examples of how the model can be done right.

Charter school expansion “must be combined with, not come at the expense of, the reinvigoration and improvement of neighborhood public schools,” Casey said in his prepared testimony. “It’s time to put the public back into ‘public charter school.'”

Another question passed out by the union suggested that council members ask school officials about the percentage of students at charter schools who receive special education services, another theme Casey’s testimony addressed. Two separate officials brought up the question: Betsy Gotbaum, the city’s public advocate, and Domenic Recchia, Jr., of Brooklyn. (A department official, Christopher Cerf, acknowledged that charter schools have smaller proportions of English language learner students and of special education students than traditional public schools.)

Another batch of index cards, titled “QUESTIONS FOR LEO,” suggested friendly questions for a vice president of the teachers union, Leo Casey. One card suggested Council members ask about the union’s work with a Los Angeles-based group, Green Dot, to start a unionized charter school in the South Bronx. Another suggested that Council members ask Casey about the union’s work with teachers at a KIPP charter school who have asked to form a union.

A council member of Brooklyn, Simcha Felder, showed me the cards as the union passed them out — arousing uneasiness amongst a lineup of teachers union officials who sat in one of the room’s front rows. (Department of Education officials took up a front row on another side of the room.)

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.