accountability movement

City begins setting ‘rigorous, but reasonable’ targets for Renewal schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Chancellor Carmen Fariña

Since Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled his strategy for turning around the city’s lowest-performing schools seven months ago, officials have said all 94 schools would have to meet specific goals to avoid serious changes, including closure.

The city is now moving closer to determining those goals, as officials shared initial rubrics with schools this month and began setting goals for the next two years. Unlike the city’s “school snapshots,” which measure schools in identical ways, the schools in the Renewal program will have some choice as to how the city determines whether they’re measuring up.

With state deadlines approaching, the Department of Education is finalizing that menu of data points that struggling schools will use to measure their progress over the next two years. Attendance, state test scores, and graduation rates are included, and officials said they are still crunching parent and student survey data to come up with a half-dozen other metrics.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the menu showed that she was serious about holding schools accountable for improvement.

“We have established clear and rigorous school-specific benchmarks that schools must meet, or they will face consequences including changes to leadership and faculty of the school, school consolidation, and even closure as a last resort,” Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement.

Improved attendance will be a required goal for all schools and is the only metric that elementary and middle schools will be expected to show improvement on next year. High schools next year will also be expected to grow their share of students making progress toward graduation, based on how many courses and Regents exams they have completed.

In addition to attendance, elementary and middle schools will have to choose five other data points for which to set goals, three of which must be based on state test scores or former students’ credit accumulation in ninth grade. High schools can choose from graduation rates, pass rates on Regents exams, and course completion. The schools won’t be expected to hit targets for those categories until the end of the 2016-17 school year.

According to sample benchmarks provided to principals, a struggling high school with a four-year graduation rate of 54.8 percent last year would have to improve to 62.3 percent by the end of the 2016-17 school year, a 7.5-point gain over three years. A department official said the targets being set for the schools were “rigorous, but reasonable.”

The to-be-determined benchmarks will be based on a combination of data from parent and student surveys and scores from school quality reviews. Officials said they were only finalizing them now because the surveys were administered last month.

The details come seven months after de Blasio first pledged to spend $150 million over three years to help turn around the 94 schools. At the core of his plan is to flood the schools with resources aimed to support students living in poverty. The money will be used to pay teachers to work extended hours, add after-school summer programs, and hire extra guidance counselors, as well as to provide teachers with on-site training and bring in academic coaches.

It has been an uneven first year for schools under the program, with some receiving extra attention and others complaining that support has been slow to reach them. The program’s pace has been added fodder for critics who say de Blasio’s plan was not aggressive enough to fix schools that have been low-performing for years.

But the administration has put more of a focus on the Renewal schools in recent months, even redirecting more than $50 million from an expansion of the mayor’s after-school initiative.

A principal of a Renewal school said he had noticed the change, saying that a new deputy in his district superintendent’s office has been hired to specifically work with the struggling schools.

“Once I got that person, things started moving more quickly,” said the principal, who said he received a draft of the benchmarks more than a week before a customized version was sent to his school.

Principals and school leadership teams much agree on and submit the goals by June 15, a department spokeswoman said, four days shy of the June 19 deadline for the city to send in a more comprehensive plan for its struggling schools to the State Education Department.

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.