last-ditch efforts

Fahari Academy parents look to de Blasio to keep doors open

Nimia Gutierrez (center), with school staff (left), her daughter and her eighth grade son.
Nimia Gutierrez (center), with school staff (left), her daughter and her eighth grade son.

Gail Cudjoe had heard about Fahari Academy’s struggles. But when her son won a seat in the school’s fifth grade lottery, she pulled him from their zoned elementary school to start at the grade 5-8 charter school, believing it would be something better.

Four months into the school year, she’s pleased with how her son is doing at the school. But the city isn’t: In November, officials announced Fahari would be the only school it moved to close this year, despite an awkwardly-timed mayoral transition.

For Cudjoe’s son and dozens of other fifth graders, the school’s closure would mean attending their third school in just over a year. So parents and board members are now trying enlist local elected officials to help change Department of Education officials’ minds.

“Where are you going to move them to?” Cudjoe asked, standing outside the school’s auditorium after a meeting this Saturday with city officials there to answer precisely that question.

Fahari’s charter expired on Dec. 15, but received a six-month renewal this week in order to stay open through the end of the school year. But the DOE, the school’s legal authorizer, has no plans to keep it open, citing a litany of academic and stability issues that have dogged the school since its opening in 2009.

The campaign for local political support has worked, to an extent: City Council member Eugene Mathieu has pledged his support, it came too late on Saturday, arriving 30 minutes after officials with the Department of Education left. United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew wrote a letter in support for the school, whose teachers are represented by the teachers union, to Brooklyn Regent Lester Young. But Young stayed mum at this week’s Board of Regent meeting when Fahari’s six-month renewal came up for approval.

Supporters say the most important elected official in Fahari’s fight still hasn’t started his job. They hope that Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, who campaigned against closing low-performing schools, would reverse the city’s decision — though he’s also expressed doubt about helping charter schools.

“We understand that a new mayor and a new chancellor are coming in January 1,” said Fahari’s board chair Jason Starr. “Perhaps with different priorities and values we can have a different outcome.”

De Blasio did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

For now, parents who want the school to stay open are balancing advocacy with an understanding of the reality of the situation. The city has sent parents a list of nearby charter schools to apply to, and several said that they’ve already added their name to waiting lists.

The uncertainty has already compelled some to leave. In the month since the school learned its charter would not be renewed, 11 students have moved to a different school, although school officials said not all of them were related to the non-renewal.

Starr criticized the city’s handling of the authorization process for their charter this fall. An initial renewal agreement that Starr received just hours after they learned Fahari was being closed included the names of board members from a different charter school that faced closure several years ago, Ross Global Academy.

“I wasn’t altogether surprised at that basic mistake,” Starr said referring to renewal letter, “because that’s what this process has been like this entire time.”

At the meeting, Sonia Park, executive director of the Department of Education’s charter school office, declined to comment. Her staff referred questions to the department’s press office, which did not respond to requests for comment.

Regardless of the authorization process, the city has said the school’s academic outlook is bleak. Fahari has never received higher than a C on its progress report, and earned an F this year. On last year’s state tests, Fahari’s scores were 10 percentage points below the Crown Heights an Fl district average in English and four points below in math.

Officials at the school acknowledge the ongoing academic challenges, but points to improvement in areas that the city first flagged more than a year ago. Teacher and student retention are way up and suspension rates are among of the city’s lowest. They also highlight a 30 percent special education enrollment rate as evidence of its commitment to retaining high-needs students.

Radha Radkar, a former Fahari teacher sees things differently. She was an early supporter of the school’s turnaround efforts, but left in June because she said she lost confidence in the school’s direction.

“In my time there, when the school would receive constructive feedback from the DOE on how to improve things, I didn’t feel like there would be an honest effort to really reexamine how to turn the school around,” said Radkar, who is now teaching in higher education.

Parents and school officials said Fahari’s new principal, Stephanie Clagnaz, hired in June, is the perfect person to address the school’s challenges. Under Clagnaz, the school scrapped the school’s reading curriculum because it wasn’t aligned to new learning standards and began using lesson modules posted to the state education department’s curriculum website, EngageNY.org.

Parents said that Clagnaz has created a sense of community at the school, which includes giving out teachers’ cell phone numbers so they can call about homework. Many said they appreciated her presence in the hallways at the start of each day, where she greets students as they come in.

Clagnaz has held several jobs in recent years, the most recent of which was a nine-month stint in Long Island as a curriculum official, according to her LinkedIn page. She also founded and ran Empower Charter School in Crown Heights from 2008 to 2010.

She was also one of five principals who worked at Ross Global before it closed.

“I look at this as a challenge,” Clagnaz said after Saturday’s meeting. Having been at two low-performing charter schools, she said that Ross and Fahari were “worlds different.”

“The board here is 100 percent supportive of the administration and teachers,” she said.

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.