public comment

Parents demand stronger role at council hearing on engagement

As today’s City Council hearing on parent engagement wore into its third hour, parents grew agitated that they had yet to deliver their testimony.

After listening to chancellor Dennis Walcott and executive director for family and community engagement, Jesse Mojica, discuss parent engagement with council members for hours, the parents were ready to contribute, but the meeting was scheduled to end at one.

“It’s really unfair that this wasn’t mostly parent voices,” Michelle Lipkin, P.S. 199’s PTA president, said when she took the mic. “There’s a real disconnect between the definition of parent engagement for parents and the definition of parent engagement for the department of education.”

That disconnect was made clear as parents and council members agreed that the Department of Education can engage parents all they want, but without power, the engagement is all for naught.

“There’s no big secret in what gets parents involved,” Councilman Charles Barron said. “It’s when parents actually have power.” He suggested giving parents a say over curriculum, principal hiring, and budget.

Others agreed and noted that the Panel for Education Policy, the Community Education Councils, and the school closure procedures give only the guise of engagement.

“The parents need power through legislation. Not engagement, not feedback, not any of those pretty words. We need a vote on the PEP,” Christine Annechino, president of CEC 3, testified. “We have no voice. We have no power.”

Concerns raised by council members and parents during the meeting included the cut of 57 parent coordinators earlier this year, the accountability and assessment of parent coordinators, the lack of communication about toxic school environments, and the relocation of last night’s PEP meeting. While the tone was civil throughout, the issues always came back to the fact that parents don’t just want to be kept abreast of issues in their child’s school, they want to have the power to effect change.

Similarly, Pamela Johnson, president of CEC 11, questioned, “Where does the feedback go? It looks like you’re engaging us, but there isn’t any return from the DOE.”

Walcott has made parent engagement a priority since assuming his post in April. In June he held a meeting for parents on the Common Core standards, he delivered a policy speech on the topic during “Parents as Partners” week earlier this fall, and he has been making the rounds of CEC meetings.

He has also rejiggered the parent engagement initiative within Tweed to fit with his vision. What was the Office of Parent Engagement in 2002, the Office of Family Engagement and Advocacy in 2007, and the Office of Family Information and Action in 2010, is now the Division of Family and Community Engagement (DFACE).

Wolcott tapped Mojica, a Bronx parent of two, for the position in July. At today’s meeting, when council members pushed about the significance of this new iteration, Mojica said changes were being made to align the work of his division more closely with the structure of the network system. He also said the new moniker reflects his goal to engage the community at large.

Mojica’s office is staffed my 95 people, 20 of whom work specifically for DFACE initiatives such as providing support for Parent Associations, training parent coordinators, and working on the Parent Academy, which is planned to launch in September. The budget for DFACE proper is 8 million dollars; the budget for all parent-related initiatives is 105 million.

Early in the meeting, councilman Robert Jackson, chair of the education committee, testified that he was pleased with the DOE’s efforts and with the appointment of Mojica but that there was still “skepticism of DOE motives and efforts around parent and community engagement.” He cited the hazy content of the DOE’s web Site, which omits certain information about DFACE and the CEC. He also cited the marginalization of parents in important decisions about charter schools and co-locations.

Wolcott spoke off-the-cuff, mainly responding to Jackson’s concerns. But in his written testimony he shared his intent to “do a better job involving our parents and families.” He committed to improving the process of CEC elections – which were poorly planned and mismanaged last year – and to offering varied ways for parents to become involved on all levels.

“The work to get our students ready for college and careers must involve not only teachers and principals, but students and families as well. Our schools can’t do it alone,” he wrote.

While Walcott brings in a new vision of what family engagement could look like, it is unlikely under mayoral control that parents will get the leverage they want to effect change.

“Their vision of what parent engagement should be is at total odds with ours,” Jim Devor, president of CEC 15. “Powerful people get what they want no matter how deep, broad, or reasoned the communities opposition might be.”

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.