gala season

Kopp vows that TFA's "unstoppable force" will steer next mayor

Shipnia
Department of Education Senior Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg and Shipnia Bytyqi, a graduate of the high school he founded who now teaches at a charter school in the city, took the stage last week at Teach for America New York’s annual gala.

Teach For America used its annual New York City benefit last week to wade into the city’s political debate. Praising the Bloomberg administration’s education record, founder and board chair Wendy Kopp vowed that Teach For America and its supporters would fight to preserve the mayor’s education legacy after he leaves office at the end of the year.

“No matter who takes office,” Kopp said, “we are creating an unstoppable force.”

The remarks reflected Teach For America’s transition to playing a stronger role in public dialogue about education.

Kopp suggested that the organization would not throw its support behind a single candidate. “Progress isn’t a function of one leader,” Kopp said. Instead, she said, the educational change Teach For America supports requires “a constellation of committed souls.”

The strength of that constellation was on display at the nonprofit’s gala, held Wednesday at the glittering Waldorf Astoria hotel. In one night, the organization announced it raised $6.7 million, and speakers included Charlie Rose and Richard Parsons, the former CEO of Time Warner and Teach For America board member who also chairs Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Education Reform Commission.

A board member also announced the name of the organization’s new New York executive director, Charissa Fernandez. Currently the chief operating officer at The After School Corporation, an extended-day services provider and advocacy group based in Manhattan, Fernandez will begin in the role this summer, filling a position that has been vacant since Jeff Li announced he was leaving to return to the classroom last year. Fernandez said she had accepted the position just days earlier.

The evening, titled “Leadership Matters,” began with remarks from Department of Education Senior Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg, a Teach For America alumnus held up as a case study of the leaders the organization has produced here. A speaker also named a long list of alumni in leadership positions across the city, including De’Shawn Wright, deputy secretary of education to Cuomo and a 1998 New York City corps member and Matt Tepper, the campaign manager to Christine Quinn, the City Council speaker and mayoral frontrunner. Tepper joined Teach for America’s New York corps in 2004.

Chancellor Dennis Walcott and former chancellor Joel Klein also attended the event. Kopp thanked Klein for his support, noting that when she first approached him early in his tenure, he told her to come back once she had expanded the city’s Teach for America corps significantly. The number of city corps members reached more than 500 a year before the financial recession slashed the number of new teachers the city could hire.

In her remarks, Kopp, who is also a New York City public school parent, poked fun at what she called some “confusion” in the media about Bloomberg and Klein’s education record. (Local newspapers have said recently, for example, that the Common Core is raising standards where Bloomberg did not.) In fact, she said, the city’s schools have been transformed in the last decade. She described walking into large high schools years ago to find that only a third of students had shown up. Now, she said, the city’s schools are filled with teachers “on a mission” to help their students.

“Maybe someday we’ll see a New York Times article about all of this,” she said. “But for now, we’ll focus on the things we can control.”

When some members of the audience murmured in reply, Kopp smiled. “You can laugh,” she said.

Disclosure: GothamSchools’ board chair, Sue Lehmann, is a member of Teach For America’s national board.

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.