'Big For Us'

Amid a statewide surge, city’s opt-out movement is small but growing

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
A protest in 2014 at P.S. 321 in Park Slope against the state English exams.

As students wrapped up this week’s state English exams, advocates said more city parents than ever refused to let their children take the tests at schools with active “opt-out” movements, while other parents brought the boycott to schools that are new to the cause.

In District 15, Brooklyn’s opt-out hotspot, P.S. 321 saw its refusal rate rocket from about 4 percent last year to 36 percent this year, and P.S. 58 went from one boycotter to 50, parents and teachers said. Meanwhile, in southeast Brooklyn, an area not usually associated with anti-testing fervor, 10 students for the first time handed in opt-out letters at P.S. 203.

“It’s small,” said parent Charmaine Dixon, “but it’s big for us, because it’s never happened before.”

Advocates were still gathering city opt-out numbers Thursday, and while some predicted an increase from last year’s total of about 1,900 families that formally refused the exams, they will still represent a tiny fraction of the roughly 420,000 city test-takers. A spokeswoman said the education department would not have a final opt-out count until the tests, which are given in grades three through eight, are “fully processed.” (Students take the math tests next week.)

The city’s refusal rate will also be dwarfed by the percentages in several suburban and upstate districts, where some reports said the majority of students sat out the tests. Across the state, more than 155,000 students out of about 1.1 million eligible test-takers may have refused this week’s exams, according to an unofficial tally Thursday morning by the group United to Counter the Core, which opposes the Common Core standards and their assessments. Last year, 49,000 students did not take the English tests, according to state officials.

While noting the city’s comparatively small numbers, advocates stressed that the refusal movement has spread outside Brooklyn and Manhattan’s liberal bastions to a smattering of schools in other parts of the city, sometimes despite resistance from principals and teachers. Advocates, parents, and teachers said the growth reflects some parent’s long-standing wariness about the value and validity of standardized tests, which hardened this year after Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed tying teachers’ ratings even more closely to students’ scores.

They added that some parents decided it was safer to boycott the tests this year following city policy changes that shrank the role of test scores in decisions to promote students to the next grade or admit them to certain middle schools. Still, the advocates acknowledged that the eye-popping opt-out figures from other parts of the state made them reluctant to release their latest citywide counts.

“Part of the apprehension,” said parent and opt-out organizer Janine Sopp, “is that our numbers are not going to be Long Island numbers.”

As some city schools dived even deeper into the refusal waters this year — for example, the Earth School in the East Village went from 52 to 72 percent of students sitting out the exams, a teacher said — others tried dipping in their toes. Nine schools out of 100 that were contacted in the Bronx and Staten Island reported having parents opt out for the first time this year, according to Jody Alperin, a parent member of the group NYC Opt Out. (Not all the schools responded.)

Still, the vast majority of students took the tests. In some cases, parents worried that skipping the exams could keep their children from getting into selective schools. Despite the policy change, middle schools with admission policies can still base up to 49 percent of student rankings on their scores — and some parents fear that scores weigh even more heavily in practice.

Takiema Smith, a parent at the Brooklyn New School,  in a photo from 2014. Smith opted her child out of the exams that year.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Takiema Smith, a parent at the Brooklyn New School, in a photo from 2014. Smith opted her child out of the exams that year.

Meanwhile, some administrators have warned parents who inquired about opting out that students may have to attend summer school or take different tests, and that schools could lose money, advocates said. And some teachers warned that their ratings could suffer, the advocates added. (Chancellor Carmen Fariña has told principals to explain the value of the state tests to parents, but respect their choice if they decide to opt out.)

At some schools, educators participated in panel discussions or sent letters home in which they openly shared with parents their concern that the state tests do a poor job measuring student growth and teacher effectiveness. But in other schools, educators said they were ordered not to share such views.

After several students in one Bronx classroom opted out for the first time this year, the principal told the teacher she would face disciplinary charges if he found that she had encouraged them to do so, according to the teacher who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation. (She denied urging students to boycott.) Theresa Cardazone, a sixth-grade social studies teacher at I.S. 281 in Brooklyn, said such threats stop some teachers from giving parents even basic information about opting out.

“The parents are not informed,” she said, “and we’re not allowed to give information.”

Teachers who back the opt-out movement have criticized their union leaders for declining to endorse the boycotts, as the state teachers union recently did. While the head of New York State United Teachers recently recorded a robocall telling members that parents have a right to opt out, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew warned members at a meeting this week that test refusal could jeopardize the city’s federal funding, according to attendees who said he also affirmed parents’ right to make that decision. (In a statement, Mulgrew said the union shares parents’ concerns about high-stakes testing, and blamed Cuomo’s education policies for the rise in boycotts.)

The city gets about $900 million in federal education funds, and one condition is that at least 95 percent of students in tested grades take the annual exams. If a school or district dips below that threshold, then the state education department must “consider” possible sanctions, one of which is withholding federal funds, officials said. (Advocates said sanctions can only kick in after three years, but a state education department spokesman did not confirm that when asked.)

Spokesman Jonathan Burman said the agency would consider withholding money “in the most egregious cases,” but that any sanctions would be determined on a “case by case basis, taking into account the degree and length of time the district has failed to meet participation rate.” A federal spokeswoman said that agency has never had to withhold money due to the 95-percent rule “yet.”

Jody Alperin, the NYC Opt Out member whose children attend P.S. 10 in South Park Slope, where advocates believe the number of boycotters shot up to 60 this year from one last year, called the talk of sanctions “scare tactics.”

“They’re using semantics,” she said, “to be as scary as they can.”

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.