space wars

De Blasio: City fails to engage parents on school siting issues

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, speaking today on the steps of the Department of Education's headquarters at Tweed Courthouse
Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, speaking today on the steps of the Department of Education

When two courts halted the city’s plans to close 19 public schools this year, judges ruled that the city didn’t follow state law that requires it to engage parents and report the impact that the changes will have on students’ educations.

Now Public Advocate Bill de Blasio is arguing that the city is making the same mistakes when it decides to place multiple schools in the same buildings.

In a report released today, de Blasio charges that the city did not give parents enough information about how changes to space usage would affect instructional programs or about public hearings on the changes.

“They’re just doing the minimum amount of parent outreach so they can say they did,” de Blasio said today.

De Blasio’s office and the Alliance for Quality Education surveyed nearly 875 parents at 34 schools, about half of those that the city proposed moving into new, shared space last year. (Roughly half of public schools citywide currently share building space with other schools.)

The survey included responses from parents at both district and charter schools. It also included several schools that were the sites of fierce battles over colocation last school year, including the Clinton School for Writers and Artists and the American Sign Language School; Girls Prep Charter School and P.S. 188; and PAVE Charter School and P.S. 15.

More than 40 percent of the parents who responded said that the city had not provided specific detail on how the school’s current offerings would change under altered space arrangements.

When the city makes any changes to how school facilities are used, state law requires it to prepare an “educational impact statement” (EIS) detailing how the changes will affect students and the surrounding community. Fewer than half of the parents reported that they even knew that the city had prepared an analysis of the changes, and only a quarter ever saw a copy of the analysis.

The court rulings threw out the city’s EIS’s for its 19 school closure proposals, but judges were silent on whether accompanying proposals to move new schools into those buildings would also be affected. In part to avoid another lawsuit, the city struck a deal with the teachers union to place fewer new schools in buildings alongside schools that had been slated to close.

Speaking at a press conference with de Blasio today, a parent leader at one of the schools affected by that deal complained that parents had been shut out of the process from the start.

“We never hear about the hearings,” said Yvette Chico, vice president of the parent association at he William H. Maxwell CTE High School. “They never let us know.”

De Blasio has staked out a cautious middle ground between the city and the union on education issues, endorsing the charter cap lift but also calling for a halt on siting them in city school buildings. Under a rallying cry of boosting the parent voice in the school system, de Blasio has made colocations his central education issue.

DOE spokesman Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld said that the city was always trying to improve how it engages with parents, but criticized de Blasio’s focus on the educational impact statements. City officials, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have frequently said that the importance of their school closing efforts outweighs the details of state law.

“We wish the Public Advocate showed the same amount of concern for our children stuck in failing schools as he does for DOE processes,” Zarin-Rosenfeld said.

De Blasio said that he did not know of any potential legal challenges to the DOE’s process of siting schools, nor did he challenge the legitimacy of school siting arrangements that were approved last year. Instead, he called for a moratorium on new school colocations until the city improves its process.

And Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, called on Albany to revise the school governance law to make explicit exactly what information the city needs to include in its impact statements.

Here’s the full report:

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.