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City to give longer school day, literacy help to middle schoolers

Chancellor Dennis Walcott and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn spoke at the Urban Institute of Mathematics in the Bronx on Monday.
Chancellor Dennis Walcott and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn announced a new phase in the Middle School Quality Initiative at the Urban Institute of Mathematics in the Bronx.

For thousands of sixth-graders at 20 city middle schools, the school day is about to get a lot longer.

The schools will offer an hour of intensive literacy tutoring and 90 additional minutes of community-inspired programming such as yoga and gardening, as part of the city’s latest effort to spur improvements in the lowest-performing middle schools.

Chancellor Dennis Walcott and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn announced today that they are adding 40 schools to the city’s two-year-old Middle School Quality Initiative. Twenty of those schools will be randomly chosen for the three-year extended day pilot program.

Walcott made middle schools his priority when he took office, rebranding  an initiative that Quinn had spearheaded as MSQI and expanding it to include focuses on literacy, teacher collaboration, and using data to drive instruction. Since then, MSQI has grown from 18 to 49 schools, and in the fall, it will include 89 schools.

“These two things together, a longer day and high needs intense literacy training … We know that’s part of the solution to get children reading on level,” said Quinn, who is running for mayor, at a press conference at one of MSQI’s original schools, Urban Institute of Mathematics in the Bronx. “When you can read on level, the sky’s the limit.”

The city listed literacy as a top priority for the middle schools from MSQI’s start, but an exhaustive search last year for city schools that do literacy particularly well turned up no examples. Now, the department is partnering with a group that so far has specialized in math instruction, not literacy, to develop the curriculum for the extended day program.

Harvard University’s EdLabs — run by Roland Fryer, the sociologist whose studies have also brought the city experiments in performance pay — will work with the city to create the curriculum and train tutors to send into the schools. The paid tutors will each work with just four sixth-graders, and all sixth-graders will be required to spend an hour daily in tutoring sessions. EdLabs plans to measure the success of the literacy tutoring by comparing students with tutoring to students in similar schools without literacy tutoring.

To fill the other 1.5 hours of the extended day, the city is turning to a community-partnership model that some of its schools have used before. The After-School Corporation will work with the DOE to help schools bring in paid “community educators” from organizations such as the YMCA and Settlement Houses, according to TASC’s Susan Brenna. What a school offers in those 90 minutes will depend on what it wants to put its resources into and what community organizations have to offer, she said, citing service projects and gardening programs as examples that TASC has seen before.

Teachers at the schools may also choose to stay the extra hours, and they will be compensated for their time, Brenna added.

The MSQI expansion and extended day pilot program will cost $6.2 million. It’s being funded by $4.65 million in grants from the New York City Council, Robin Hood and the Carson Family Foundation. The DOE is also contributing $1.55 million.

Because the city and teachers union have not reached a deal on teacher evaluations, the city cannot compete for state funding that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has made available for schools who want to extend their days.

Extended day programs have drawn criticism for being too expensive for schools to fund without private donors. But Quinn said the city would come up with the funds if the pilot succeeds.

“Will it cost more money to take it citywide? Of course it will. But when we know it works, we’ll have to make it a priority and make that happen,” she said.

In a statement, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who is also running for mayor, said the pilot program did not go far enough.

“Either you believe every child deserves a safe place to go after school or you don’t. We don’t need another pilot project or half-measure to prove these programs work,” he said. “What we need is the will to fund them and make them available to every working family.”

De Blasio has proposed a plan to fund extended learning time by taxing households who make more than $500,000 a year.

But another critic of past middle school improvement efforts said he was optimistic that the latest initiative could be different. Pedro Noguera, a New York University professor who chaired the City Council’s original middle school task force, said the extra time and formal literacy program could improve student performance the way that past city efforts have not.

Noguera, who sits on the The After-School Corporation board, said he is glad that community organizations will be brought into the schools.But he said he is concerned that intense tutoring at the end of a long day could turn students off.

“A lot of schools are already struggling with keeping kids engaged. To do another hour that they just had a full day of may not be something kids want to partake in. And it will be a lot of wasted money if kids don’t show up,” he said. “Hopefully people closer to the kids will understand it’s not simply a matter of grinding the information into their heads.”

City officials and advocates for extended learning time say they are not worried about demand.

“We do not expect parents to opt out,” Walcott said. “We see them saying give me more, more, and more.”

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.