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Parents, Weingarten sue DOE, Klein over charter school siting

Parents and a slew of community leaders filed a lawsuit today against the Department of Education, demanding that the department reverse its decision to shutter three struggling elementary schools and replace them with charter schools. The parents say the decisions violated state law, because they happened without any consultation of the elected parent councils that have replaced community school boards.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the teachers union; Betsy Gotbaum, the city’s public advocate, and a slew of parents of children at the schools are among the plaintiffs to the suit, which personally singles out Chancellor Joel Klein as a defendant. (Read the full suit here, in PDF form.)

Suing Klein and his department is a dramatic escalation of the ongoing saga over the city’s decision this year to shut down three elementary schools — two in Harlem and one in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn — and fill their buildings with charter schools instead. Charter schools are publicly funded, but operate outside of the regular district bureaucracy, meaning they usually lack teachers unions and can only serve a limited number of students.

A central complaint in the lawsuit is that the changes would leave families in the schools’ neighborhoods with no zoned elementary school dedicated to educating them. Instead, the families could either go to a traditional public school in another neighborhood or they could enter the lottery that determines charter school admissions. The charter schools being installed in their old school building would give them preference in the lottery.

The lawsuit, written jointly by the United Federation of Teachers and the New York Civil Liberties Union, says the city’s decision “disenfranchises” families. It also accuses the city of violating state law by leaving a neighborhood without a zoned school without the approval of elected parent boards called Community Education Councils, or CEC’s. CEC’s are legally required to approve any change in school zones.

The city Department of Education had no comment today. A spokeswoman for the city’s law department, Elizabeth Thomas, said in a statement, “We have not yet received the legal papers. We will review them thoroughly upon receipt.”

In the past, the DOE has defended its decisions as the best way to serve children in Harlem and Brownsville. Just before the lawsuit became public, I spoke to John White, the city’s chief portfolio officer, about the three schools: P.S. 194 and P.S. 241 in Harlem and P.S. 150 in Brownsville, Brooklyn.

White argued that school officials and the chancellor have an obligation to provide students with the best quality school they can find. He pointed out that while at P.S. 194, for instance, the most recent test scores show that about 60% of students cannot read on grade level, every charter school in the same district, District 5, that received a city report card last year got an A.

The charter school tentatively slated to enter P.S. 194, Harlem Success Academy 2, has not yet had students take state tests, and does not yet have a progress report. But city school officials point out that the school network is massively popular: Last year, 6,000 students applied for 500 seats at Harlem Success.

“The overwhelming evidence in New York City is that charter schools en mass are performing as well as or better than the larger set of our schools that have the same populations or the same challenges,” White said. “That’s just not something that we can disregard.”

Parents filing the lawsuit counter that what they deserve is to be included in the process of school improvement. “It’s not that we’re not aware of what things need to be improved,” said a parent leader at P.S. 194, Ta-Tanisha Rice. “But you didn’t even ask us as parents! You didn’t even ask the students themselves.”

Rice said she only learned that P.S. 194 was being shut down in a meeting in December, where White and the city’s chief parent engagement officer, Martine Guerrier, asked parents not whether they wanted the school to be shut down, but what kind of a school they wanted to create in its place. “You’re not considering our goals, you’re not considering our ideals for our students!” Rice said she told White and Guerrier that day.

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.