"kind of like a rebirth"

New energy felt at school where cheating principal was removed

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Lights dimmed on stage in the auditorium at the Theatre Arts Production Company School and a cocktail waitress in a short dress and high heels walked out. Behind her, flappers and American expatriates bickered and drank wine in a Paris jazz club while waiting for her to sing.

The scene that students acted out on Wednesday was from an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises,” a novel that the students read earlier in the year. Directing the students from the front row was theater teacher Bud Thorpe, who cued music and lights through hushed orders into a headpiece.

“This is kind of like a rebirth,” Thorpe said backstage after the performance as he considered the school’s — and his own — recent fortunes.

It has been just over a year since the Bronx secondary school closed a dark chapter. Last March, officials removed TAPCO’s founding principal after finding that for several years she fudged student transcripts, inflated test scores, and misused school funds. Chancellor Dennis Walcott said Lynn Passarella’s behavior was “dishonest and disgraceful, and shows a blatant disregard for principal responsibilities.”

Under Passarella, the school glimmered with accolades, including the top score on the city’s progress report, but suffered internally through teacher turnover while students received an incomplete education. After her removal, some test scores plummeted, a sign that some of school’s lofty accomplishments were perhaps too good to be true.

Those scars are still fresh. But the school is seeking to reinvent itself by doubling down on the programs for which the performing arts school was named. The Hemingway production, Thorpe said, which included nearly 50 students, was a sign of the progress made in just one year.

The school is also rallying around its new leader, a former fireman and blues singer from Ohio who moved to New York City in 2005 to teach.

“After the disaster, as we called it, the school’s reputation was tarnished,” Thorpe said. “It was Ron who polished it.”

Ron Link had not been a principal before getting picked to oversee TAPCO’s turnaround, a job he began the day after Passarella was yanked from the school. (The city moved to fire Passarella, and she is currently suspended without pay while she appeals the decision.)

“I sensed it was a wounded community,” said Link, who said he spent the rest of the 2012 school year listening to teachers and learning about their skills. What he found, he said, was that many of them had extensive arts backgrounds but were not teaching arts classes.IMAG0166edit

“The arts were alive here,” said Link, who said he was drawn to the school because of his own background as an actor and musician in Cleveland. He likes to tell visitors about his band, which opened for many famous acts, including Run-D.M.C. in 1983.

One of the teachers whose background was being squandered was Thorpe, who often clashed with Passarella during her tenure. Link said he had been “stuck in a classroom,” away from the stage where he previously taught theater, as a result.

“There was an immediate bond and it was really over the summer, after he came in and had time to listen and to communicate,” said Thorpe. One of the ideas they had was to commit to putting on a theater production on a large scale, which would engage more students in the school’s mission. “When we started talking, he said, ‘You can do this.’”

Link started the year by moving much of the arts instruction in house,  improving morale and bolstering the school’s budget at the same time.

“All of the arts were farmed out, like $4,500 to $6,000 per month, to outside consultants,” Link said. “I spent less than that for the entire year and I have affiliations and partnerships with 12 [or] 13 programs within New York City that cost next to nothing.”

The school was also significantly underequipped to serve the 20 percent special education population. Link hired six special education teachers with dual arts certifications, who have spent the year working with students with disabilities and running their own dance and acting clubs.

Raising student achievement remains a challenge. After years of inflated scores, proficiency on eighth grade English and math tests fell last year, the first without Passarella, by 21 and 22 points, respectively. And not a single student passed the Algebra II Regents exam, just two years after nearly 90 percent of students did.

Several students who took the exam in earlier years alleged that their teacher had given them the answers to test questions. The teacher, Anastasiya Kornyeyeva, is under a new investigation with the city, Department of Education officials said. A former teacher at the school said the investigation is tied to cheating.

Link would not comment on the case, but he said he has been diligent about making sure that no part of the old culture continued.

“Anything that I encountered that was contrary to Department of Education policy, I submitted it to [the Office of Special Investigations] for review and possible investigation,” Link said.

Link said he hired someone just to comb through student transcripts to figure out which ones were improperly credited, and “we whittled it down to what’s real and what’s not.” Link said they found “a handful” of students whose were at risk of not graduating.

Teachers say Link has brought a sense of order to the school day and cohesion to their instructional practice. He has planned curriculum maps for each subject that get revised regularly through team meetings, collaboration that teachers said happened rarely in previous years.

Link said he believes the school is now on the right path, and its website boldly makes that claim.

“The Clouds are Clearing!” reads TAPCO’s homepage, which touts a strong school quality review from the city and a B on last year’s progress report, with “more authentic achievement” to follow in the future.

Next, Link plans to toughen the school’s admissions process by requiring students to demonstrate their commitment to and skills in the arts, which he said the old administration did not do.

“People are going to have to come ready with a monologue, a piece to dance,” Link said. “They’re going to have to want to be here.”

Link received an endorsement of his own recently, too. The newly formed student council, one of more than 20 clubs and programs at the schools, asked him to meet them in the auditorium to review plans for end-of-year events. When he got there, they surprised him with a tribute to his first year on the job. A video they dedicated to him featured students who often thought back to what it was like in previous years. Some said they “weren’t really learning” and, now, were happy to be “actually doing our work.”

“The school probably would have closed down,” a student said.

Thank You, Mr. Link from TAPCO Video Productions on Vimeo.

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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.

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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.