a wider net

More students qualify for gifted programs; DOE credits outreach

A chart produced by the Department of Education that shows
A chart produced by the Department of Education that shows the number of children qualifying for gifted programs in each district, compared to last year.

Nearly 50 percent more incoming kindergartners scored high enough on two nationally normed assessments to be eligible for a seat in a gifted and talented program, according to data released today by the Department of Education. The percentage of test-takers who qualified also increased, from 18 to 22 percent.

The jump in participation shows that the standardized procedures the DOE established last year for admission to gifted programs are gaining traction, DOE spokesman Andrew Jacob told me today. “It reflects that families are more familiar with the way we’re running the admissions process,” he said.

The increased number of students eligible for gifted programs could be seen as a feather in the cap for the DOE, which has said it wants to expand access to gifted programs to children citywide, particularly in communities that have not had robust gifted programs in the past. Jacob told me the department this year ramped up its outreach to prekindergarten programs in districts where too few children took the tests and scored high enough last year to warrant opening programs.

“We wanted to find as many children as possible in the city who could meet the standard that we set,” he said.

In terms of sheer numbers, some of the biggest gains happened in districts that already enroll many children in gifted programs, including the districts comprising Staten Island and most of Manhattan below 96th Street.

Children are eligible to join a gifted program if they score in the 90th percentile or higher on two nationally normed assessments; children who score in the 97th percentile or higher can also apply to ultra-elite citywide programs.

The DOE has said it will add as many as 175 seats in citywide programs, bringing the total number to 435; a total of 1,345 incoming kindergartners scored high enough to jockey for coveted spots, ensuring that many families who apply to citywide programs will not be placed in them. The total number of students qualifying for gifted admission is 3,231. All of the children, including those who qualify for the more selective programs, are guaranteed a spot in a district program if they want one.

Families will receive their children’s scores this week. The next step is for families of eligible children to submit an application ranking the programs in their district and, if applicable, elsewhere in the city. The DOE will match families with programs based on their preferences and demand for each program and will let families know where they’ve been accepted by mid-June.

The department has said it expects applications to gifted programs to siphon away some of the enrollment crunch that has left families on the waiting list for their zoned school at more than 100 schools around the city. It will not be until the end of the school year, when families are required to accept or decline the gifted program they’ve been placed into, that waitlists at overenrolled schools should start moving, Jacob told me today.

The admissions process is substantially the same as last year, when it debuted to some rocky results, including a drop in the number of children in poor districts gaining admission to gifted programs. But there are some some changes, Jacob told me. First, he said that while the department hasn’t yet set a minimum number of students for a gifted class, the number will definitely be higher than the one used this year, when programs were permitted to open with as few as eight students.

Also, the DOE is trying to make it easier for families to evaluate their options. Last year, many parents reported finding it difficult to figure out which schools were holding open houses and when. This year, the DOE is maintaining a schedule of open houses for all schools that families of eligible children can rank.

Even with the increase, most families still do not participate in the gifted screening process. When the DOE first announced the standardized G&T admissions procedures last year, it said it planned to screen every child for eligibility this year. It dropped that plan last May as a result of budget cuts. Jacob told me today the decision to scrap universal screening was also a response to an outcry from some parents who said they did not want their children tested. He said the department is instead focusing on outreach to continue increasing the number of families seeking G&T screening.

From my conversations with parents, it’s clear that there is much room for improved outreach. When I was at the lottery for the Harlem Success network of charter schools two weeks ago, I asked all the parents I spoke to whether they had also had their children screened for gifted programs, in addition to applying for charter schools. Only one had, and several told me they didn’t know they had the option or found out about it only after the deadline had passed.

I spent way more time than I should have tonight looking at the numbers. Tomorrow, I’ll post a little more analysis about the data released today.

2009 Gat Results

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.