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Comptroller finds city underreported high school drop-outs

City school officials have underreported the number of students who dropped out of high school in the past by reclassifying some of them, according to a report released by the State Comptroller today.

The report, which comes out of an audit completed by Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s office in January, examines a group of students that are labeled as “discharged,” meaning they have left the school system for legitimate reasons, such as moving to another state or deciding to enroll in a G.E.D. program. It finds that some of these students should actually have been labeled as drop-outs, but because of paperwork errors or school officials’ failure to follow state regulations in certain cases, they were counted as discharged.

Students who are discharged don’t count towards the city’s drop-out rate and some advocates have argued that principals can misuse the discharge code, entering students who simply dropped out in order to inflate their graduation rate artificially. Overall, the comptroller’s report found that even with the improper discharge classifications taken into account, the city’s graduation rate was “generally accurate.”

To determine whether the city’s Department of Education was improperly classifying drop-outs as discharges, auditors in the comptroller’s office examined the records of students who started high school in 2004 and should have graduated in 2008, but were discharged along the way. They randomly chose 500 of the 17,025 general education students who were discharged and 100 of the 1,923 discharged special education students.

Through interviews with principals and guidance counselors and analysis of students’ records, auditors found that 74 of the 500 (about 15 percent) discharged general education students and  should have been considered drop-outs. For special education students, 20 of 100 did not have enough documentation to prove they had been discharged.

The report notes that in the vasty majority of these cases of improperly labeled students, schools weren’t able able to find enough documentation of students’ new schools or entrance in G.E.D. programs to satisfy the State Education Department’s requirements for discharge.

But in some cases, the report says, the students had clearly dropped out. According to the report, one student who quit high school to join the military was classified as discharged. Another dropped out and was labeled as such, but then the school changed the students’ classification to discharged and couldn’t provide auditors with documentation to show why.

DOE officials responded to the report by saying that most of the students who the comptroller designated as erroneously discharged were not hidden drop-outs. Instead, they are victims of a discrepancy between the city and state’s standards for proving students have been discharged.

“We believe that, in practice, they [the state standards] impose an unfair and unwarranted burden on school principals, administrators, counselors, and outreach workers,” said Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow Suransky in his written response to the audit.

In response to the audit, school officials challenged some of the report’s findings. One example they cited as evidence of the state’s overly strict standards was the case of a student who left her New York City high school and returned to West Africa after her father was deported. Her uncle confirmed that she had left but because her school couldn’t verify this directly with the student’s father, auditors said she should have been labeled a drop-out.

In the report, the comptroller’s office responds that the student was discharged in 2004 but it wasn’t until May of 2010 that city officials interviewed the girl’s uncle and learned that she had returned to West Africa in 2007. For the three years between when she stopped going to high school and when she left the country, the city had no documentation proving she had been in school.

Lower East Side Prep High School Principal Marth Polin said that properly discharging students is not easy. Many of her students are recent immigrants from China and it’s not unusual for them to leave the U.S. or New York City without telling anyone at her school.

“It’s very arduous,” she said of the discharge process. “The problem is they often don’t tell us they’re leaving, and then we’re held accountable for them.”

When Polin’s students do tell her where they’re going, they still have to sit for a planning interview, sign papers saying they are discharging themselves (or their parents are), and provide a plane ticket proving they are leaving the country. Once they’ve left, they have to prove they’ve enrolled in a new school, otherwise they’re classified as drop-outs.

“I don’t think it’s entirely fair because any of us that do take a lot of immigrant kids, we do take the biggest hit,” Polin said.

“It may be arduous but there’s no other way to get around to actually verify this stuff,” said Leonie Haimson, executive director of the advocacy group Class Size Matters. Two years ago, Haimson and Jennifer Jennings, an assistant professor of sociology at New York University, released a report on the city’s increasing number of discharged students.

Haimson said that because schools are graded — and sometimes closed — based on their graduation rates, principals have an incentive to use the discharge label for their students who drop out.

“It’s a combination of sloppy oversight and an accountability system which really hurts these kids the most, by having schools push them out and then lie about it,” she said.

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.