broken promise?

City moves to close Cypress Hills school at heart of federal grant

Students who participate in the Beacon after-school program at J.H.S. 302 in Brooklyn served healthy food after learning about nutrition. The nonprofit that runs the program wants to help the school improve, but the city wants to close it down. (Photo: Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation)

As the new year began, J.H.S. 302 in Brooklyn thought it was on the right track.

Principal Lisa Linder had worked with a local nonprofit to apply for a federal grant to flood the low-performing school and the surrounding neighborhood with extra help for students and their families. In late December, the nonprofit, Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation, found out it would get $371,000 from the U.S. Department of Education to move forward with the project.

Then the other shoe dropped: The city Department of Education announced on Jan. 7 that it planned to close J.H.S. 302.

The news has thrown the nonprofit partnership into question — and it has also put J.H.S. 302 at the center of a tug-of-war between two competing visions about how to improve struggling schools.

The Bloomberg administration has taken many approaches to helping the city’s lowest-performing schools over the last decade. But the strategy it has returned to most often is to close weak schools and open new options in their place.

That strategy has drawn more and more criticism as evidence increasingly shows that new schools do not always perform better and that, especially for high schools, closures can contribute to other schools’ decline. Now, as the Bloomberg administration enters its final years, elected officials in the city are pointing to a different approach: “community schools” that offer medical, mental health, and social services alongside classroom instruction.

Inspired by a union-organized trip to see Cincinnati’s community schools, most of the Democratic candidates for mayor have committed to promoting the model, arguing that children cannot succeed academically unless they are physically and emotionally supported first.

This philosophy underpins the Promise Neighborhood grant program the U.S. Department of Education launched in 2010. Modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone, the program funds local efforts to provide educational, social, and health services to all children in a single neighborhood, from their birth to their first days of college.

Each year, the department awards two kinds of grants: planning grants to figure out how to help local communities, and implementation grants to put those plans into action. In December, the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation was one of 10 community groups nationwide awarded the latest planning grants.

Rob Abbot, the nonprofit’s director of youth and family services, said one of the grant’s priorities is to improve middle school education in the neighborhood, with a particular eye towards boosting students’ math and reading test scores. But what exactly the organization proposes to do for J.H.S. 302 and in the neighborhood as a whole, Abbot said, depends on the needs identified in an initial assessment and the possible solutions that emerge through collaboration with other schools.

Linder said she hoped the planning process would focus in part on finding ways to better serve the J.H.S. 302’s large bilingual population and introducing more technology to the school, which already belongs to the city Department of Education’s Innovation Zone.

Emily Blank, Cypress Hills’ development director, said she chose to partner with J.H.S. 302 because of a “longstanding relationship” with the school and with Linder, and because the corporation already runs the Beacon school-based community center there.

“This [grant] really gives us the opportunity to pull resources together, and hopefully leverage that to get more resources that will really make the difference,” she said.

Though J.H.S. 302 is the main partner school, the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation also plans to collaborate with five other schools in the neighborhood, including P.S. 89, a K-8 school the nonprofit helped found that has been more succcessful than J.H.S. 302. “We’ll be looking at practices [at P.S. 89] that are having good results and are preparing middle school students for successful transition to high school,” Abbot said.

Blank called the new funds “game-changing” and said the group plans to apply for a federal Promise implementation grant once the planning process is complete.

But J.H.S. 302 might not be around by then. If the school’s closure is approved — and it is likely to be, given the city school board’s 100 percent track record in supporting city proposals — it won’t have a sixth grade this fall. Next year, it would have only an eighth grade, and it would close its doors for the last time when those students graduate in 2015. That means the partnership could not fulfill the terms of its grant application, which, Linder noted, “was written with the framework of 302 having grades six to eight.”

Blank said officials from the U.S. Department of Education advised her last week that Cypress Hills’s Promise Neighborhood project would not be called off just because J.H.S. 302 might close. She said she plans to proceed with J.H.S. 302 as the partner school and then, “if 302 were closed, we would move along with whatever school is the replacement.”

That means the project of revamping the school will follow an uncertain course for some time. While the school closures will not be finalized until March and new schools will not get up and running until this summer, Promise Neighborhood grantees are expected to begin the planning process this month.

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.