calling out

Chancellor Fariña implies some charter schools boosting scores by pushing out students

PHOTO: Geoff Decker

Chancellor Carmen Fariña implied Thursday that some city charter schools prop up their state test scores by encouraging students to enroll elsewhere late in the school year.

“There shouldn’t be a whole movement out of charters the month before the test,” Fariña told reporters on Thursday morning. The well-timed attrition is not happening at all schools, she said, adding, “It happens in some places.”

Though she has expressed concerns about charter schools in the past, Fariña’s comments were perhaps the most provocative she has lobbed at the charter sector since taking over the school system. Her comments echo longstanding critiques of charter schools — which serve a smaller percentage of students with disabilities and English language learners than district schools do, and aren’t required to take new students mid-year — though higher-than-average student attrition from charter schools hasn’t been borne out by recent research.

[Update: Charter Center CEO says Fariña has ‘obligation’ to release enrollment data after push-out claims]

Fariña made the comments after speaking to Partnership for New York City President and CEO Kathryn Wylde at a conference on Thursday. In her conversation with Wylde, Fariña ticked off ways she supports charter schools, including school visits, inviting them into her Learning Partners Program, and inviting them to the city’s professional development sessions.

“Where we need to do more work is better transparency,” Fariña said.

Asked to elaborate after the talk, she said she was concerned that charter schools look to replace students who leave with only students with top test scores.

She said she wants “to ensure that, as there are openings in upper grades, that the kids that are accepted in are not just kids who get postcards because they’re level 3s or 4s to come to the school.”

Fariña doesn’t oversee most of the city’s charter schools, which are independent from the Department of Education and enroll students through lotteries. But she serves on the board of the New York City Charter School Center and, as the city’s top education official, her public statements on the issue are closely monitored.

Fariña isn’t the only high-ranking education leader to say that more attention should be paid to charter schools’ enrollment practices. Last year, Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch urged state education officials to create a “stability index” that would flag suspicious trends like high student discharge rates right before state testing. (A spokesman for the State Education Department could not immediately say whether that metric had been developed.) Earlier this month, Tisch agreed with Fariña’s calls for more transparency on a panel with State Education Commissioner John King.

When students leave charter schools in the middle of the year, many end up in district schools, which can put a new burden on the school charged with getting the student adjusted. Whether charter schools lose students at a higher rate than district schools has been the subject of a number of recent analyses.

A 2012 SchoolBook analysis looked at three years’ worth of student discharge data and found that average student mobility rates were lower for charter schools than they were for traditional public schools, though turnover was higher in some charter-heavy districts. Last year, the Independent Budget Office looked at attrition in lower grades for all city schools and released similar findings.

Another study, released in 2013 by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, looked at 25 charter elementary schools and concluded that the special-ed gap was caused by parents’ enrollment choices, not students being pushed out.

None of those studies looked at when during the year students exited a school.

If Fariña is serious about probing charter schools’ enrollment data more deeply, she could make it happen as the city schools chancellor, said Ray Domanico, the director of education research at the IBO. The department tracks student discharges from district and charter schools by date, he said.

The debate over charter schools will be amplified in the coming months with the state legislature expected to consider lifting a cap on the number of schools allowed to open in the city. As in 2010, when the cap was last lifted, the conversation is likely to include calls for schools to enroll more high-needs students.

On Thursday, Fariña said she wants to see more attention on those issues.

“We need to make sure that, when you say that these are the kids that are enrolled through the lottery,” Fariña said, “that these are the kids you graduate.”

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.