west side story

Backing her kid's school, actress Cynthia Nixon joins UWS war

A resolution to move an Upper West Side middle school passed on Wednesday night, but not before Cynthia Nixon — “Sex and the City” actress, Alliance for Quality Education spokeswoman, and parent at the school — was shouted down briefly during a heated public comment session.

Nixon was stepping into a fight that has been raging on the Upper West Side for months. The fight began as a discussion about how to deal with overcrowding at public schools but has spiraled into a raging debate about class and race and privilege in Upper Manhattan. Confrontations have gotten incredibly emotional — and personal: On this site, a commenter posing as Cynthia Nixon’s fictional son, Brady, from “Sex and the City” accused his “mom” of hypocrisy. And parents at Nixon’s school, called the Center School, have charged another school’s parents with racism and class prejudice, citing postings from last January on the Urban Baby Web site that called Center School students “thugs.”

At issue is a plan that would move the Center School from its current home inside a larger elementary school on West 70th Street, PS 199. Supporters of the plan tout it as an easy way to relieve crowding at the elementary school, which is growing so quickly that parents fear it will not have room to hold their younger children. Opponents, including Nixon, argue that moving the Center School exacerbates segregation by race and class. (PS 199, a zoned school, is two-thirds white, while the Center School, which draws its students from throughout the district, is half white and has a higher proportion of black and Hispanic students.)

If the plan becomes official, which it almost certainly will after Wednesday’s vote, the Center School will move to another school building several blocks away.

Nixon and other Center School parents have vehemently opposed the plan for months, making fliers and using the school’s Web site to organize protests. They also delivered passionate testimony at the meeting Wednesday, choosing Nixon and another mother to represent their cause. In her short remarks, which I captured in the video above, Nixon argued that there is a stark difference between the demographic of the Center School and the “increasingly white and increasingly affluent” elementary school it shares space with. Moving the Center School away, she said, would lead to a “de facto segregated building on 70th Street.”

The Upper West Side school war began in September, when the city Department of Education suggested two plans for how the Upper West Side could relieve crowding.

One would have moved 30 percent of students to new schools. But the local parent council that has final authority over zoning matters last week indicated that it would back a much tamer plan. That one would move only a handful of students, keep siblings in the same school, and, most controversially, relocate two schools. One of those schools, Anderson, a gifted school that pulls students from across the city, agreed to a move. The other, the Center School, where Cynthia Nixon is a parent, has spent weeks fighting tooth and nail against the plan.

The people booing Nixon were led by a growing group of parents who are zoned for PS 199 but fear that increasing crowding could make the school too packed to have room for their children. If the Center School moves out of their building, that will shore up space for their children at PS 199. These parents, who have maintained a Web site that some say contains misinformation, turned out in large numbers to the meeting on Wednesday. (Below the jump, view a video of their spokesman, Eric Shuffler, speaking out at the meeting; he, too, was booed.)

But Nixon’s contingent was by far the largest. It included not only by Center School parents but also parents from at least four neighborhood schools, who echoed Nixon’s argument about diversity. The group walked out in protest as the council prepared to vote. A number of PS 199 parents who said they supported the Center School joined them.

Also walking out — at times to shouts of “Yes, we can” — were parents from the Computer School, a middle school whose building will be Anderson’s new home, and PS 75, a diverse elementary school whose zone was trimmed in the resolution.

Council members said they had no authority to involve issues of diversity in the rezoning process. “The [Community Education Council] does value diversity. We’ve talked about it,” CEC 3 member Jennifer Freeman told me after the meeting. “We were working with the tools available to us so the main topic in this conversation had to be overcrowding. We would welcome the opportunity to talk about diversity more.”

During the meeting, one council member explained that she wanted to deal with issues of race and class segregation in the district but that now was not the right time to do so.

“If not now, when?” audience members shouted at her.

That council member, Danielle Moss Lee, ultimately abstained from voting. She was the only council member present who did not vote in favor of the resolution.

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.