Update: Voter Mandate

Mandate relief approved despite opposition from NYC Regents

The State Education Department’s proposal to relax some special education rules met resistance today from two New York City-based members of the Board of Regents.

The Bronx’s Betty Rosa and Brooklyn’s Kathleen Cashin were the only two members of a Board of Regents subcommittee to vote against the proposals, which would significantly reduce or eliminate the roles of people that are currently required to serve on a committee that supports student with disabilities.

Both Rosa and Cashin said they were concerned that scaling back services would hurt children who require individual education plans. Cashin questioned whether the proposals, which are meant to cut costs, would result in any kind of real savings.

“The whole mandate relief is not that expensive, relatively speaking, compared to the trauma that could be caused the family,” Cashin said.

Cashin was particularly concerned with the decision to eliminate the “parent member” role on the committee. The role, an unpaid position, is meant to provide additional support for parents whose students have disabilities.

But SED Deputy Commissioner Becky Cort, who presented the recommendations to the Regents, said the “parent member” role was duplicated by the school psychologist and other school staff who sit in on the meetings. In addition, she said, because the parent member wasn’t always available for meetings, finding a time when the entire committee could meet was frequently tricky.

Other Regents disagreed and voted to approve the recommendations, which will likely be officially was passed at tomorrow’s this evening’s general Board of Regents meetings. Long Island’s Roger Tilles, who said one of his children has had “eight or nine” individualized education plans over the years, said the parent member has offered him little support when they meet.

“I find that the parent member is not the person that helps me out,” Tilles said of the meetings.

The proposals come six months after state education officials first offered up a framework for mandate relief. After May’s meeting, in which they opened up the conversation to the public, Cort said they received over 700 comments. One of the “major changes” that were made from the original framework was to reinstate the school psychologist back onto the committee. The first proposal recommended that the psychologist be eliminated.

“Our sense,” Cort said of the public feedback, “was that in most instances the psychologist would be an important member at the iniatial assessment.”

The proposals are the first in a series of reforms expected to be made in coming years that will curtail mandated spending on special education services. New York State spends more on mandated special education services than any state in the country.

Critics of the mandates say other states perform just as well or outperform New York State in serving its special education services.

“This is part of a broader discussion in a series of steps that will allow greater flexibility of rules for districts,” said Regent Jim Tallon, who is leading the Board of Regent’s state aid efforts.

“It’s a start,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director for the New York State Council of School Superintendents. “The point I would make is that our practices are so out of line with that of other states that are doing just as well or better than us.”

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.