Competitive advantage

Cuomo floats competitive grants to urge more learning time

The state will underwrite costs for schools that keep students in class an extra 300 hours per year, according to a top proposal floated today in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s third “State of the State” address.

Extended learning time was one of several proposals Cuomo mentioned during the education section of his speech, which lasted more than an hour and covered a variety of non-education issues, including a strict ban on assault weapons, decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana, raising the minimum wage and a new plan to build casinos in upstate New York (the revenue of which will mostly go toward state school aid).

The proposals were part of a “more and better” approach to education reform that Cuomo is crafting for 2013, a year after he targeted education “lobbyists” and school bureaucratic inefficiencies. Cuomo said he also wants to invest in expanding early education programs and creating schools that provide health and social services for poor communities.

Cuomo is making the funds available in the form of competitive grants, which he has used in the past in an attempt to fast-track education reforms. The grants would only be eligible to districts and schools that craft plans that adhere to best practices prescribed by Cuomo.

The previous grants have encountered resistance, both from union officials, the Board of Regents and State Education Commissioner John King. They all agreed that a $250 million mini-Race to the Top grant would be be better used if it were redistributed into the state’s general school aid formula.

Update: Officials from the state education department did not respond to requests for comment. New York State United Teachers President Dick Ianuzzu and United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew praised the proposals.

“We … applaud Gov. Cuomo for proposing a way for school districts to increase learning time for students through a creative grant program, one that districts could use to restore their enrichment programs in music and the arts,” Mulgrew said in an emailed statement.

For the second straight year, Cuomo also touted the importance of boosting and rewarding teacher quality. He proposed a plan to give accomplished “master teachers” $60,000 bonuses over four years to train other teachers. Cuomo said he’d seek to replicate the model used by the New York City-based Math for America,  a fellowship organization that boast 380 math teacher fellows.

All of the education proposals were previewed last week, when an education reform commission that Cuomo convened last year released a preliminary round of recommendations. Cuomo touched on all of the recommendations in today’s speech.

It was the extended learning time proposal that Cuomo headlined with his education speech. The proposal was based on a Massachusetts initiative that added 300 instructional hours to 19 schools since 2006. Students from those schools who participated in the initiative saw their math scores spike 20 percent and their English scores  increase by 8 percent.

In New York City, which extended its 6.5-hour day by an additional 37.5 minutes on most days for many students, schools have for years been able to extend and rearrange their day if teachers agreed to do so.  Brooklyn’s Generation School added an extra 20 days to its school year by staggering work schedules and vacation periods so that no teachers work more than the legally-required minimum of 180 days. Another school, Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School, voted to extend school periods to 65 minutes and eliminate the five minute hallway break between periods.

Cuomo’s proposal will reward schools that submit similarly-creative plans, which are designed to minimize costs. Cuomo did not mention how much it would cost, but the extended learning initiative in Massachusetts costs the state about $1,300 per student per year, 7.5 percent of the average per pupil cost, according to National Center on Time and Learning, which oversees the initiative.

Chris Gabrieli, chairman of NCTL, said most schools with extended learning models “found their own way to doing this” and applauded the top-down policy directive that Cuomo was putting forward.

Cuomo gave himself a pat on the back for creating a law that tied state funding to districts that hammered out deals on evaluation plans before a Jan. 17 deadline. New York City, which has 40 percent of the state’s 2.7 million public school student, is among the nine districts out of 700 that hasn’t submitted a plan. Without mentioning New York City’s absence, Cuomo declared the funding incentive “a success story,” as getting districts to come to a deal.

FINAL 2013 State of the State

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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.