the tormented twentieth

At council budget hearing, talk turns to high school admissions

City Councilman Mark Weprin raised the issue of high school admissions during a City Council budget hearing today.

A middle school in eastern Queens has been hit particularly hard by the limits of the city’s high school admissions system, according to a local elected official who wants a new high school program opened to serve shut-out eighth-graders.

City Councilman Mark Weprin announced during a council hearing today that 67 students at M.S. 72 in Springfield Gardens wound up without a match last week when high school admissions decisions came out. The students made up 20 percent of the eighth grade, meaning that M.S. 72 students went unmatched at twice the citywide rate.

“There are 67 kids who think they did something wrong,” Weprin said. But their only offense, he said, is that students at M.S. 72 — which posts lower-than-average test scores but has a selective program — often don’t want to go to the high school most likely to accept them.

“The zoned high school is Martin Van Buren High School, and not a single parent put it as one of their choices,” Weprin said. Instead, he said, students aim for Francis Lewis High School or Bayside High School — two of the last high-performing comprehensive schools in the city. Both have many more students than their buildings are supposed to accommodate.

Education Committee chair Robert Jackson cautioned Weprin about sticking to the assigned topic, the Department of Education’s proposed capital budget for the fiscal year that starts in July. (The council is holding a hearing about the department’s operations budget on Thursday.) Weprin acknowledged that M.S. 72’s situation is “tangential to the capital budget” but that one solution would be to build more schools to accommodate the demand at schools that are overenrolled right now.

Another solution, Weprin told Department of Education Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm, who was testifying about the budget proposal “is to put a new program into Van Buren that would attract some of the M.S. 72 kids. It’s crazy that no one wants to apply there.”

The strategy is one that the Department of Education is trying this year at several other schools where demand for seats is low. For over a decade, the department has focused intently on closing low-performing schools and opening new ones in their place, but this year, most of the large schools that the city tried unsuccessfully to shutter last year stayed off the chopping block. Instead, they’re getting new selective programs designed to boost enrollment; reduce the density of high-need students, which the state is demanding; and add academic rigor to buildings where that has been lacking.

In 2011, Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch criticized the city for turning Automotive High School, one of the lowest-performing high schools in the city, into a “warehouse” for needy students. This year, Automotive is getting its first screened program, in mechanical engineering. John Dewey High School, which was almost closed last year, is getting a screened health professions program, and in Queens, John Adams High School is adding performance arts and engineering programs that will be open only to students with certain grades and scores.

The strategy might not work at Martin Van Buren, whose most famous dropout might be — somewhat ironically — the Nobel laureate who designed the city’s high school admissions system. After a dramatic enrollment decline in the last few years, the school is actually serving exactly as many students — about 2,200 — as it was designed to, according to Department of Education data about school capacity. And it already does have selective programs, in health professions and math and science. But those programs attracted few applicants last year, according to data published in the city’s high school directory.

The school might rebound without any enrollment intervention. After parents protested against longtime principal Marilyn Shevell last year, the Department of Education replaced her with Sam Sochet in July. Weprin praised Sochet but said, “It’s going to take people a long time to start believing in” Van Buren again.

The discussion of high school admissions was only a brief sideshow in a hearing that focused heavily on the city’s plans to remove light fixtures that can leak toxic PCBs from school buildings. The department plans to clear 97 buildings of PCBs this summer and another 73 in 2014 using its proposed budget, Grimm said. But Jackson called that timeline “totally unacceptable” and asked repeatedly whether more schools could be cleared if the department had more money for the project. (Comptroller John Liu, who is running for mayor, has championed using “Green Apple Bonds” to raise funds for PCB removal.)

More money could potentially speed PCB removal, Grimm replied, but having enough time to work on school buildings when students and teachers are not present also factors into the timeline.

About the pace of PCB removal, which is needed in nearly 800 buildings, Grimm said, “Can we see if that could be increased somewhat if there were more resources? Yes. Can we do everything in the summer of ’14? No.”

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.