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Highbridge Green School students present a project their parents helped design

Our recent story about the Highbridge Green School highlighted a unique collaboration between parents and teachers, who worked together to plan an English unit for the school’s first class of sixth graders.

Fueled by parents’ desire to continue shaping the new school they helped create, the co-planned unit included an interview project that students worked on at home. We visited the school last month when students shared their projects at a fair in the cafeteria.

Aliesse Doucoure interviewed her father about his immigration story.

“It was kind of hard, but I felt like I was prepared,” Aliesse Doucoure said, describing the process leading up to the fair.

After reading “Dragon Wings,” a book about a Chinese boy who immigrated to the United States, Doucoure and her classmates interviewed parents and community members — and in at least one case, a teacher — who had their own immigration experiences to share.

“I was learning information I never knew,” Doucoure said of the interview with her father. “He’s this strong person. So when he told me he was afraid on his way here, it shocked me.”

In class, students wrote essays comparing the perspectives they read in the book and heard in their interviews. At home, with parents’ support, they made colorful posters with information about China or the countries where their parents were born.

Haley Alonso, right, with classmates, said she’d never spoken to her father about his journey from Cuba before the project.

Standing by her poster, Haley Alonso said she had never asked her dad about his experience immigrating from Cuba until she interviewed him for this project.

“It was a little hard talking to my dad about stuff like where he came from,” Alonso said. “I don’t really talk to him about stuff like that.” She said she was surprised to learn that her dad came to the United States in a plane instead of a boat.

Adrian Serrata was seven years old when he and his mom, Margarita Serrata, moved from the Dominican Republic, so the broad strokes of her story weren’t new to him. But he said the interview helped him learn about what the shared experience felt like for her.

Margarita and Adrian Serrata discussed their trip from the Dominican Republic to the Bronx together.

As an example, he described the plane ride, which he remembers as the scariest moment of the trip. But his mom “felt more confident,” he said, because she was older and had been on a plane before.

Margarita said in Spanish that alongside his curiosity about the plane ride, Adrian wanted to know “what was different between being here and my country and how I adapted here, to another culture and language.”

“We’ve lived it all together, and I’m still here pushing him,” Margarita added, alluding to the central role parents played in this project, sharing their experiences and helping their kids prepare posters at home.

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.