gang of four

Mayoral candidates unite to target Bloomberg's school policies

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, a 2013 mayoral candidate, talks about school closures at a press conference outside City Hall.

A press conference about the city’s school closure policy looked a lot like a campaign stop for four men eyeing 2013 mayoral runs.

Four leading mayoral candidates — Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, Comptroller John Liu, and former comptroller and 2009 mayoral runner-up Bill Thompson — spoke at the event on the steps of City Hall. The press conference was organized by the Coalition for Educational Justice, a nonprofit that has spearheaded protests against many of the 25 closures proposed this year.

Flanked by advocates and parents, the men echoed concerns outlined in a report CEJ released last week about the inclusion of students with special needs in new small schools. (That report responded to a report by an independent research firm that found the schools had increased students’ chances of graduating.) The candidates all said the Bloomberg administration had been too quick to close schools without trying other interventions and had “warehoused” high-needs students in schools that are now facing closure.

They also demanded that the city release details about what happened to students who had not yet graduated when their schools closed — information that is required by law to come out tomorrow.

But they stopped short of explaining how they would do things differently if they became mayor and gained control of the schools. The closest anyone got was Stringer, who took aim at an Achilles’ Heel for Bloomberg: the way the Department of Education engages parents and communities.

Referring to the backlash against school closures, Stringer said, “You can get your point across if you realize that mayoral control gives an opportunity to work with people.”

Absent from the lineup was City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, seen as Bloomberg’s pick to succeed him. She was invited but was not able to attend, according to a CEJ representative. A spokesman from Quinn’s office distributed a press release that praised the city’s small schools but said they were “no magic bullet for transforming schools.”

“I am also concerned that high-needs students get the education they deserve in this city, and look forward to hearing about Chancellor Walcott’s plan to hold schools accountable for enrolling equal amounts of students with high needs,” she said in a statement. Walcott told selective schools earlier this month that they would have to accept more students with disabilities or risk having them enrolled by the department.

The press conference comes a day before the city is required to release data about what happened to students who were enrolled in phase-out schools last year the day the schools closed their doors for good.

Department of Education officials said that information would be released tomorrow in accordance with legal deadline set by the City Council. But in response to the press conference, the department released a snippet of the data to be unveiled tomorrow.

They said 189 students who remained enrolled when 15 schools completed phasing out last year transferred to 90 schools established enough to receive a city progress report. Of those students, 44 percent wound up at a school with an A or B on the city’s progress report and 37 percent transferred to a C-rated school. Nearly 20 percent of the students wound up in a school rated D or F, making it eligible for closure, and 19 students transferred to schools that were already in the process of closing.

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.