Test Protests

Anti-exam rallies fill the sidewalks outside dozens of schools

PHOTO: Annette Kathryn Konoske-Graf
In April, students, parents, and teachers marched outside P.S. 87 shouting "Show us the test."

Critics of the state English exams marched around P.S. 87 on the Upper West Side early Friday morning, chaperoned by their parents. The young demonstrators hoisted up handmade signs that read, “We Need Better Tests,” and “Too Much Pressure for 3rd Grade,” with frowny faces inside the O’s.

The students joined parents and educators from nearly 40 schools in Manhattan, along with a couple in Brooklyn and Queens, who took to the sidewalks outside their own schools Friday to protest the state English exams, which students sat for last week.

The exam backlash has been fueled by teachers and principals who said they were disturbed by confusing test questions that seemed disconnected from the state’s Common Core learning standards. Many parents, already anxious about the number of tests students must take, were alarmed to hear educators’ reports about the tests, much of which is not released to the public.

“When we heard teachers say they felt the tests were outrageous, how could we not trust what our teachers say?” said Ann Binstock, the mother of a fifth-grade student at P.S. 87.

“There are enough red flags,” she added, “that we can’t just continue to talk about this in the schoolyard anymore.”

The protests, which drew hundreds of people to some schools before the start of classes, followed a speech Thursday by New York State Education Commissioner John King, in which he fiercely defended the state’s education initiatives, including the new standards and tests.

He described recent debates over those efforts as “noise” and “drama,” and attributed some of the outcry to “misinformation.” And while acknowledging that some schools spend too much time preparing for tests, he insisted that the state had worked to reduce testing time. He added that the new Common Core exams “are better tests” than previous ones.

His comments struck a nerve with some of the principals, who usually avoid getting involved in education’s political fights, but felt impelled to refute the notion that misinformed members of the public were stirring up unrest about the tests.

P.S. 59 Principal Adele Schroeter said the hundreds of parents and students who filled the streets around her Midtown school Friday morning were “more than noise and drama, in spite of what John King might say.”

The demonstrations sprang up outside schools across Manhattan and in parts of Brooklyn and Queens.

More than 100 people rallied outside of P.S. 11 in Chelsea. At the P.S. 343 the Peck Slip School, a small school housed inside the education department’s headquarters, about 50 parents and staff members demonstrated.

At P.S. 131 in Chinatown, parents and teachers held a silent protest — the first ever at the school.

“For our parents, this is their first protest in their lives,” said Principal Phyllis Tam. “I am so proud of them.”

Some 200 parents, students, and staff also rallied outside P.S. 10 in Brooklyn and about 40 people gathered outside P.S. 244 in Queens.

“The more parents and community members learn about how unfair this year’s test was,” said P.S. 244 science teacher Christian Alberto Ledesma, “the more they want to be a part of the movement.”

Many parents criticized state restrictions that keep the public from seeing most of the test questions and prohibit educators from describing them. They also called references to brand-name products in some of the reading passages “product placement.”

A spokesman said that while the state education department only released 25 percent of last year’s exam questions, it plans to release “significantly more” this year. He added that the exam’s reading passages come from previously published articles and stories, and that if they contain references to company names, the state does not remove them.

Back at P.S. 87, after the demonstrators finished their march around the school Friday morning, they chanted, “Show us the test!” and “Just say nay to ELA!”

After that, the students scurried inside for the start of the school day.

Annette Kathryn Konoske-Graf contributed reporting.

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.