word on the street

Charter school advocates demand UFT apology but get debate

Charter school parents and advocates protest outside UFT headquarters today.

Charter school parents and teachers took their fight against the UFT and NAACP’s school closure and co-location lawsuit to the headquarters of the main group that filed it.

About 250 people gathered this morning outside the United Federation of Teachers’ Lower Manhattan offices to demand that the union drop the lawsuit, which would stop 16 charter schools from opening, moving, or expanding. They emphasized that some charter schools are set to start their school years in as few as six weeks but don’t yet know where or if they will be opening.

The protest was the first that specifically targeted the teachers union since the lawsuit was filed May 18. Last month, a much larger group of protesters rallied outside the Harlem headquarters of the NAACP, which joined the UFT in the suit.

Protesters chanted a series of slogans for nearly an hour, at one point shouting “UFT: Apologize” for more than three minutes straight. The demand referenced a statement made last week by a union lawyer that he would not negotiate with charter school advocates until they apologized to the NAACP.

UFT officials took a softer line today, handing out baked goods and hats emblazoned with the union’s logo. Later, two UFT officials rolled a coffee cart along the side of the protest bullpen.

Some of the protesters accepted the offerings, but not Kathleen Kernivan, who has emerged as a spokeswoman for the charter school parents. She was first to speak from a stage with the backdrop that read “Your lawsuit hurts my child.”

“You have money for lawyers, you have money for hats, but you can’t buy my daughter’s education,” Kernivan said.

The breakfast and hats were meant as gestures of goodwill, according to Karen Alford, the UFT vice president in charge of elementary schools. “We wanted to say we support you, we’re not against you,” she said. “We’re not your enemy and the fight shouldn’t be with us.”

UFT vice president Leroy Barr, left, debates with charter school advocates outside the union's headquarters.

That theme carried into a debate across the protest barricade between Leroy Barr, a union vice president, and parent Sabrina Williams and Lynwood Shell, a Morehouse College student who is working this summer in the education division of the United Negro College Fund, which works with Achievement First charter schools.

Williams and Shell accused the union of trying to diminish choice for families who have opted out of traditional public schools. But Barr told them that the UFT’s objection is not to charter schools or even to the concept of co-location, but to the process that the Department of Education has used to allocate school space.

“So why is the lawsuit not against the DOE?” asked a parent who had been listening in.

“It is,” Barr said. “You are a byproduct of our fight with them.”

Williams said she has been fighting for her child’s school, Harlem Success Academy, since it opened five years ago. Her debate with Barr, she said, was “one of the most positive conversations I’ve had about these issues to date.”

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.