the road to city hall

At parent forum, mayoral hopefuls vow to stop grading schools

Four of the city’s mayoral candidates appeared Thursday evening at a parent-focused forum at P.S. 29 in Brooklyn, which was moderated by Diane Ravitch, a critic of the Bloomberg administration’s education policies.

City schools’ annual letter grades would become a thing of the past if any of the mayoral candidates who attended a parent-oriented forum in Brooklyn Thursday evening takes over City Hall next year.

Sal Albanese, Bill de Blasio, John Liu, and Bill Thompson each vowed to stop issuing the grades, which the Bloomberg administration has issued since 2007. The city has used the grades — which are almost entirely based on student test scores for elementary and middle schools — to pick which schools to close and which principals to reward.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and all of the non-Democratic candidates in the race skipped the forum, which was organized by a parent group that formed to oppose high-stakes testing and co-sponsored by the teachers union-aligned Alliance for Quality Education.

The school grading issue was one on which the candidates had not clearly staked out positions before moderator — and outspoken critic of the Bloomberg administration — Diane Ravitch asked them about it. But their unanimity reflected the tenor of the evening, in which the four men clamored to demonstrate their alignment with the parents who organized the event and against Mayor Bloomberg’s school policies.

“Diane Ravitch is one of my heroes,” Albanese, a former teacher, said in his opening statement. Moments later, de Blasio, currently the public advocate, started out by saying, “I love P.S. 29,” the school that hosted the event.

Liu, the city’s comptroller, topped Albanese by saying about Ravitch, “I’m very thankful she’s not running for mayor. Otherwise we could all go home happy.” And Thompson, who burnished his education credentials on the Board of Education before the Bloomberg era, praised Ravitch’s habit of eliciting fierce criticism. “You know you’re doing something right if so many people attack you,” he said.

Ravitch made clear where she stood on each issue as she asked about it, and audience members frequently signaled their concurrence with cheers and boos. Before she asked the candidates whether they would continue to let charter schools use Department of Education space for free, for example, Ravitch said the privately managed schools “cause overcrowding and competition for facilities and resources” and are “now moving into neighborhoods like Cobble Hill even though there’s no demand for them.”

The candidates did not all give specific answers to the question, but they all criticized the charter sector. And they all vowed to reduce class sizes; boost arts in schools; withhold city students’ data from a controversial warehouse maintained by the nonprofit inBloom; and diminish what they agreed was an excessive emphasis on standardized tests.

The candidates’ unanimity meant that the event “functioned almost more as an accountability session” than a forum for debate, said City Councilman Brad Lander. He said parents needed a space to let candidates know what was important to them.

Some of the parents who packed P.S. 29’s auditorium said they were relieved to hear that there are mayoral candidates who share their concerns.

“I think there were good comments about putting a halt to the testing mania,” said Jamie Mirabella, a P.S. 29 mother whose third-grader “opted out” of last month’s state tests. “It’s an expanding issue that needs to be solved for everything else that needs to happen to happen.”

But others said they had felt alienated by the way the event was structured. “The forum was a pep rally for those who share the same point of view,” Douglas Hanau, also P.S. 29 parent, wrote in a comment on GothamSchools in which he characterized his view as “more nuanced [and] less dogmatic than Ravitch’s. “I was very disappointed.”

The event was not the last time that parents will put policy questions directly to those who are seeking to be the city’s next mayor. The Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Committee, a legally mandated elected parent council, is sponsoring a candidate forum in June.

And candidates could go a lot further toward explaining what they would do as mayor, instead of just saying what they would not do, Lander said. The logical question after hearing the candidates say they would do away with the city’s school grading system, he said, is,”What kind of accountability system would you put into place to evaluate, support, nurture the well rounded schools?”

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.