Taking Stock

City took steps to boost academic diversity in 2015, new report shows

The city quietly took steps to diversify dozens of middle and high schools last year, according to an education department report released Wednesday.

The department stopped most middle schools in three districts from screening applicants based on their academic records, and allowed 51 low-performing middle schools to recruit students from beyond their normal catchment areas, the report said. The department also added 20 new “educational option” high school programs designed to enroll students at different academic levels, according to the report, which listed several efforts to boost student diversity across the system that had not previously been announced.

In an email, David Tipson, executive director of the school-diversity advocacy group, New York Appleseed, singled out the increase in educational option schools as a “significant achievement” that “reverses the trend under the previous administration.”

The new report, he added, will “inform and elevate an important debate about the role of public policy in fostering school diversity.”

The report is a requirement of the School Diversity Accountability Act, a local law signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio in June, which followed a headline-grabbing 2014 study that said New York City has one of the nation’s most segregated school systems.

The tendency of students to attend separate schools based on their race and class gained renewed attention in 2015, thanks to media coverage, grassroots integration efforts, and flare-ups over school zones. But many of the city’s efforts to boost school diversity focus on potential proxies for race and class — such as students’ home language or their academic performance — and on disabilities.

For instance, the “ed opt” high schools admit a certain percentage of students with above-average, average, and below-average academic skill levels in an attempt to develop a diverse population. In contrast, many of the city’s most sought-after high schools only accept applicants with strong academic records. With the new additions, 146 of the city’s roughly 700 high school programs now use the ed-opt admissions system.

The districts that will mostly do away with academic screening at middle schools beginning next fall are District 7 in the Bronx and Districts 16 and 22 in Brooklyn, according to the report.

The 51 middle schools that can now recruit students from throughout their entire boroughs, not just their local zones or districts, are part of the city’s “Renewal” program for struggling schools. It’s unclear whether that policy, which is meant to address the very low enrollment at those schools, will be enough to draw in new students — much less a mix of students from different backgrounds.

To promote linguistic and perhaps ethnic diversity, the city added new dual-language programs this year that mix together native and non-native English speakers. It also began publishing admissions materials in multiple languages and calling Spanish-speaking families to encourage them to enroll their children in school.

The report also said the city launched a new pilot program this fall that set up support centers for homeless students during certain high school admissions fairs. Individual eighth-graders who live in temporary housing were invited to visit the support centers during the fairs to receive personal counseling, according to the report.

The integration of students with special needs into classes with non-disabled peers continued to be a focus.

The city expanded a program that mixes together students with and without autism, and added new bilingual special education classes. It also gave schools enrollment targets for students with disabilities, though the report does not indicate what share of schools hit those targets.

Some of the new initiatives are designed to spur socioeconomic diversity. Most notably, the city will allow seven elementary schools to pilot admissions policies where they reserve a portion of seats for low-income students or English learners.

It also was awarded the first portion of what could amount to $10 million in new state grants this year intended to revamp low-performing schools partly by filling them with more higher-income students. The city is planning to do that by adding enrichment programs at eight target schools. However, some experts have questioned the city’s plans, saying they fall far short of real integration efforts.

The report also lists enrollment data for every district and school, including the share of students who have disabilities, live in shelters, qualify for subsidized lunches, and who are still learning English. It also tallies the racial breakdown of each school and how its students performed on state tests. Most, if not all, of that data was already publicly available — but now it is compiled into a single document that may make it easier to compare schools and spot trends.

Education department spokesman Harry Hartfield said there is “no single solution” to the lack of diversity at many of the city’s schools, but that the agency would continuing working with lawmakers, educators, and families “to foster more ideas on how to create diverse schools.”

City Councilman Brad Lander, who co-sponsored the diversity bill, said in an interview before the report was released that this first installment would serve as a baseline to measure the city’s progress over time.

“We know we have segregated schools,” he said. “It’s going to show us that in fine-grained detail.”

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.