Officials blanket Sandy-affected schools, where fallout persists

State Education Commissioner John King and City Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott talk to a P.S. 47 administrator.

At M.S. 53 on the Rockaway Peninsula, one student told Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch he was worried about taking the state tests after all the time he missed in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Up a flight of stairs at Village Academy, Chancellor Dennis Walcott heard from a seventh-grader named Kimberly who lost everything in the storm. In a few weeks, she’s relocating permanently to Rochester, said her principal, Doris Lee.

And at a third visit at P.S. 47 in Broad Channel, an island that helps connect the Far Rockaway peninsula to the Queens mainland, Walcott asked about 20 fourth-graders if they knew what “FEMA” meant.

Every hand went up.

Another 12 schools damaged by Sandy reopened on Monday, bringing 5,400 more students back to their original classrooms from temporary relocations in other school buildings. During a visit to another Far Rockaway school, P.S. 43, Mayor Bloomberg celebrated the news and noted that of 65 schools originally rendered “non-operational” because of power outages, damaged boilers, and flooded basements, all but 18 are back up and running.

At the 18 schools that are still in temporary sites, attendance on Monday was 80 percent, far higher than the 30-percent attendance rate that relocated schools were posting when school first reopened. Attendance was only slightly higher, 80.6 percent, at the 12 schools that moved home today. Citywide, attendance was 91.1 percent.

But as the hardest-hit schools reopen and attempt to return to normalcy, students, teachers, and administrators say Sandy is hardly in their rearview mirror. Walcott, Tisch, State Education Commissioner John King and other education officials spent Monday morning visiting some of the schools to find out how they’re doing now that school has resumed.

In Kimberly’s science class at Village Academy, for instance, the class reviewed the weather patterns and conditions and had to determine whether they should have evacuated before the storm hits.

The officials spent most of the morning popping in and out of classrooms, asking teachers and students about their work and talking about the storm.

The heat and electricity might be back on at P.S. 47, but Principal Ann Moynagh said things were hardly back to normal after the school returned to its home building last Tuesday. Moynagh told Walcott that she estimated about 50 percent of her school’s families had been displaced and she ticked off the new towns and states where they were enrolling: Montauk, Pennsylvania, Mastic, Monticello, Glendale.

There was still no internet or phone service available at the school and Moynagh said it had made getting in touch with students who remained absent from school.

“There are 55 kids who we’ve really been unable to account for,” Moynagh said of the 241-student school. “We’re still trying to figure a lot out.”

Bloomberg, Walcott, King, and Tisch were not the only officials to visit storm-affected schools on Monday, the three-week anniversary of the storm. Public Advocate Bill de Blasio visited I.S. 211 in Canarsie to meet maintenance workers who “worked around the clock for sixteen days after storm to repair the building and reopen it to students,” according to a release sent out by de Blasio’s office.

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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.