stern warning

Feds caution New York State on Race to the Top implementation

The Obama administration is warning New York State that it could lose hundreds of millions of federal dollars if it doesn’t stick to its Race to the Top promises.

The stern warning comes in conjunction with a set of U.S. Department of Education progress reports summarizing implementation successes and setbacks in each of the states that won federal Race to the Top funds in 2010. Eleven states and Washington, D.C., shared a $4.3 billion pot of prize money.

Department officials said New York was doing better than Hawaii, which last month was deemed as being at “high risk” of losing its Race to the Top funding. But they said the state was falling behind after making progress in Race to the Top’s first year.

“New York has a chance to be a national leader or a laggard and we are only interested in supporting real courage and bold leadership,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement. “Backtracking on reform commitments could cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars for improving New York schools.”

When New York submitted its Race to the Top application in 2010, it promised an ambitious slate of reforms. Officials said they would revamp teacher evaluations, overhaul curriculum standards and assessments, build a comprehensive education data system, and turn around struggling schools. In exchange, the state would receive $700 million over four years.

In the first year after the money started flowing, the state was supposed to begin building the statewide data system, and this year, it was supposed to finalize new teacher evaluations in accordance with a state law passed to help win the Race to the Top competition. Neither project has moved forward as planned.

In August, Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli rejected a contract with Wireless Generation to build the data system over concerns about the company’s relationship to News Corporation, which was embroiled in a phone-hacking scandal. Officials said the contract rejection set the data system back by about a year.

Plus, a requirement in the state’s teacher evaluation law that each district hammer out terms with its union has brought its implementation to a standstill. After negotiations fell apart in several districts, including New York City, last month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that the state’s teacher evaluation law “didn’t work.” Yet state officials have made having new evaluations in place a requirement for receiving most Race to the Top funds going forward.

In a joint statement, Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and State Education Commissioner John King called the characterization of New York’s policy standstill “disappointing but not discouraging.”  But they said they approved of the Obama administration’s decision to play hardball with Race to the Top winners — with threats of a funding freeze similar to the one King enacted last week to 10 districts, including New York City, that hadn’t met a state deadline for finalizing new teacher evaluations.

“The RTTT report is a reminder that the federal government will hold us to the commitments we made in our RTTT application, just as we will hold districts and educators to the commitments they made,” Tisch and King said.

Federal officials said they were working with the state to put New York back on track. But it’s hard to see how they could help. Teacher evaluations are being negotiated in local districts, where federal officials said they were not likely to get involved. A lawsuit challenging the evaluation law is making its way through the court system, which could take years. And state officials are trying again to identify a vendor to build the data system, but any contract is subject to review by the comptroller’s office.

The Obama administration issued a similar warning to Florida, saying that setbacks there had followed a strong start to implementation.

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.