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Eli Broad describes close ties to Klein, Weingarten, Duncan

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the philanthropist Eli Broad at an inauguration party thrown by Broad. (Via Flickr)
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the philanthropist Eli Broad at an inauguration party thrown by Broad. (Via ##http:[email protected]/3215801647##Flickr##)

The education philanthropist Eli Broad is based in Los Angeles, but at an event this week in Manhattan he painted a vivid picture of the unique influence he’s exerted in the New York City schools.

Broad said that his foundation has given money to the two charter schools the union president here, Randi Weingarten, opened; has trained seven or eight of the top officials in Chancellor Joel Klein’s Department of Education; and was a player in Klein and Weingarten’s merit-based pay deal.

The remarks came at an event at the 92nd Street Y Monday, where the writer Matthew Bishop of the Economist interviewed Broad on a small stage. Broad said the close relationship began as soon as Klein took the job. “From the first day Joel took office, literally, we met with him,” he said. He is close with other education leaders, too.

In Washington, D.C., the Broad Foundation has met repeatedly with superintendent Michelle Rhee and is believed to be one of the groups that would fund Rhee’s plan to give teachers more money in exchange for giving up tenure rights. Broad said on Monday that several of his staff members are taking jobs in Arne Duncan’s U.S. Department of Education.

The relationships are part of the Broad Foundation’s aggressive education agenda, which includes opening many charter schools, adopting corporate models for school leadership, and changing the way teachers are compensated. Because they are not beholden to public opinion, philanthropies can be “far more aggressive” in their goals than most politicians, Broad said. “We don’t mind taking risks. We don’t mind being criticized, at times even being hung in effigy,” he said.

Broad said his foundation has taken a hit from the economic downturn, seeing its endowment drop in value by 25%. But he said he plans to continue in the business of education giving and offered a few indications of where he might redirect his spending now that his other pet issue, stem cell research, is being funded by the Obama administration. “I’m a big believer in mayoral control,” he said. Earlier, he’d explained his interest in the way school systems are run: “We don’t know anything about how to teach or reading curriculum or any of that. But what we do know about is management and governance.”

He said the continued giving will be important as nonprofit organizations see their capacity shrink. He cited the Harlem Children’s Zone and the Robin Hood Foundation as two organizations that relied heavily on hedge-fund donations and therefore have lost a substantial amount of money in the downturn.

Broad also cited results emerging from the Broad-funded Education Innovation Laboratory, run by the economist Roland Fryer, who previously served beneath Klein. He described the divide inside the Democratic Party and said that Fryer’s preliminary research supports the side he and Klein favor, whose belief he summarized as the idea that schools alone can help close the achievement gap. He said the other side of the debate argues that environmental factors affect the achievement gap as well.

He said his education ventures haven’t always been successful. His foundation backed ED in 08, the national campaign intended to raise make education an issue in last year’s elections. About ED in 08, Broad said simply, “We didn’t succeed.” He said that while candidates adopted pieces of the campaign’s platform, it failed to make inroads in the national consciousness. “It amazes me that the American people don’t get it,” he said. Later, while discussing ED in 08’s call for an extended school year, he said, “The public seems to like long summer vacations.”

“We’re often accused of having too much influence in education,” Broad said. “I’m not sure how you’d restrict that.” While foundations and nonprofits are barred by law from getting involved in politics, they might expand their reach by spinning off organizations with a different tax status that allows them to back political candidates and lobby for pieces of legislation, Broad said. He said the Klein-chaired Education Equality Project is considering doing just that.

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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.