strength in numbers

City plan to shrink Wadleigh draws vocal and official opposition

Ninth-grader Geronimo Miranda joins sixth-graders Ariyelle Ceasar, Tiane Jackson, Cheyanne Young and Nia Manerville in describing Wadleigh Middle School's positive qualities at a school truncation hearing Jan. 26.

A who’s who of elected officials and Harlem leaders turned out Thursday to defend the Wadleigh Secondary School of Performing Arts against the Department of Education’s plan to close its middle school.

About 200 parents, students, activists, and staff packed the school’s auditorium Thursday evening for a public hearing on the proposal. Just before, officials who included City Councilman Robert Jackson, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, State Sen. Bill Perkins, and Comptroller John Liu all held court in the packed lobby of the Harlem campus. Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and the city’s NAACP chief, Hazel Dukes, also spoke at the hearing.

They said the city was giving up on a neighborhood institution by moving to close Wadleigh’s middle school. Jackson promised to call Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Dennis Walcott today to air his opposition to the plan.

Wadleigh’s 440-student high school would remain open under the plan, as would another middle school in the building, Frederick Douglass Academy II, which narrowly escaped closure this year after earning an even lower progress report score than Wadleigh’s middle school. A charter school, Harlem Success Academy I, is set to move its middle school grades into the building, according to a plan the city set last year.

The charter school co-location plan drew quick and fierce fire during the hearing. Perkins, an outspoken critic of charter schools, said Harlem Success had a track record of an “antagonistic relationship” with the local community and should not be given more space.

Department of Education officials said they sought to close Wadleigh’s middle school not to make room for the charter school but simply because keeping it up and running is unsustainable. It has just 94 students and last year earned a D on the progress reports the city uses to judge schools.

“With a school that is performing at this level at this size, is it possible to make it successful?” asked Shael Polakow-Suransky, a deputy chancellor, during the hearing.

In response, shouts of “Yes” emanated from the audience, which frequently interjected through the five-hour-long hearing. At times, they chanted until officials were drowned out.

Anthony Klug, a teacher and the school’s union chapter leader, said the departure of a math coach, guidance counselor, and dean had caused the middle school’s performance dip last year. Restoring those resources would help turn the school around, he said.

He drew cheers when he told the DOE officials listening to the testimony, “Closing a school is not difficult to do. It’s assisting the school that’s difficult.”

Klug told me he believes the middle school’s closure would “significantly negatively impact, if not destroy,” the high school’s arts programs.

“We have eight arts and specialty rooms, and so basically the last two years they were trying to colocate a third school in the building, not recognizing that these arts rooms take more space than schools that don’t offer these programs,” he said. “Dance kids are going to need more than a 500-square-foot room. Shrinking our school is the first step to ending [that program].”

Polakow-Suransky said during the hearing the building had more than enough space for Wadleigh to share space with another school and also maintain its arts programs.

But closing the middle school could take a different toll on Wadleigh’s arts programs, by reducing the number of students prepared to participate in them in high school, people said at the hearing.

The comments developed a theme that supporters of another performing arts school, who included staff from Wadleigh, outlined at its closure hearing earlier this week. Closing arts schools that serve low-income students would cut off a rare option for those students, argued supporters of both Manhattan Theatre Lab High School and Wadleigh. The schools have a close relationship: In 2006 Evelyn Collins left her job as Wadleigh’s assistant principal for the arts to head Manhattan Theatre Lab.

A handful of middle and high school students were the first to speak at the hearing. Standing in a line on the performance stage, the students said the school’s performing arts focus draws neighborhood students like themselves.

“This is a visual arts school that is trying to make the arts better so we can fulfill our dreams,” said sixth-grader Tiane Jackson. “Do you really want to be responsible for crushing dreams?”

Hall, Wadleigh’s principal, did not speak during the hearing. But FDA II’s principal, Osei Owusu-Afriyie, went to bat for Wadleigh.

“We serve the same students, we serve the same community,” he said. “Our school has some of the same struggles that Wadleigh has. We are working tirelessly every day to make it better.”

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.