Health and Happiness

On community school tour, Fariña finds signs of success beyond test scores

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Chancellor Carmen Fariña on a tour of Manhattan's P.S. 5 with Principal Wanda Soto and Deputy Mayor Richard Buery.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña roamed the halls of P.S. 5 in Inwood Thursday morning, marveling at the suite of academic and support services it provides students and their families, just one day after the city announced that dozens of other schools will begin to offer such services next year.

Fariña smiled at children in an early-learning program as they lifted a colored parachute, and inspected artwork that students and their families created together during evening workshops. She stopped by a medical clinic where children receive asthma medication and immunization shots, and she chatted about literacy with parents who were meeting in the school, which offers adult education courses.

By extending its reach beyond the classroom with the help of a nonprofit partner, the school has drawn in parents and fostered healthier, happier students who show up for class at high rates, Fariña said after her tour. The city is hoping for similar outcomes at 40 schools that officials announced Wednesday will split a four-year, $52 million state grant to bring a similar range of support services and learning programs to their campuses.

The city is aiming to boost student attendance and reduce the number of dropouts at the schools that will add the services. While those shifts could in turn bolster students’ classroom performance, officials are not promising immediate academic gains.

“Are you going to get a one-year growth in reading scores immediately?” Fariña said Thursday. “Not necessarily.”

As P.S. 5, for instance, which has offered robust medical and other services for two decades, students score well below the citywide averages on state exams, records show. But Fariña said such measures cannot be the only yardstick for the success of schools with robust services, which are known as community schools.

“That’s why we have to look at something beyond the test scores,” she said. “These kids are in a happy place, a healthy place.”

Schools that struggle with high rates of student absenteeism can apply to receive the grant money, which will pay for a full-time coordinator at each school to bring in outside groups to provide services. Those services can include college-preparation classes, arts programs, tutoring, and physical and mental health services for students, as well as classes and other programs for families.

The city and the nonprofit Children’s Aid Society jointly founded P.S. 5 in 1993 to act as a community school. The school offers preschool classes, after-school and summer programs, and English-language courses for parents. About 90 percent of students make use of the school’s built-in health clinic with its full-time nurse, visiting physician and dentist, and regular vision and mental health screenings.

Wanda Soto, the school’s principal for the past 15 years, said all the supports lead students to view the school as a “safe haven” whose classes they are eager to attend. The school’s average attendance rate this year is 93 percent.

The school’s programs “give children poise, structure, responsibility,” Soto said.

Despite signs of student and parent investment in the school, many students have not performed well on the state’s annual standardized tests.

Last year, less than 10 percent of students passed the state English exams, compared to 26 percent of students citywide. In math, 16.4 percent of P.S. 5 students passed, compared to 30 percent across the city. The school’s scores were also far below the city averages in 2012 and 2011.

Soto pointed out that nearly half of the school’s students are still learning English, while less than 15 percent all students in the city school system are English-language learners. She added that classroom assessments and student-work portfolios show that students are making academic progress.

While the city will not judge the success of the community schools program based solely on student test scores, officials are still hoping to see students perform better in school as their attendance rates improve and their physical and mental health needs are addressed.

The United Way of New York City, which will help the city manage the program, will track students’ academic performance at the participating schools in addition to their attendance rates, according to United Way CEO Sheena Wright.

“There is an absolute, direct correlation between improving attendance and academic success in school,” Wright said. Still, she acknowledged that the state grant funding the program is focused on student attendance and is not directly aimed at enhancing teaching and learning at the schools.

“If you have bad instruction” at a school, Wright said, “you’re not going to improve your academic performance.”

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.