over protest

City panel votes to close three more schools, bringing total to 27

Three more schools will begin closing next year, following a vote by the citywide school board last night that brought the total of schools closed this year to 27.

Members of the Panel for Educational Policy voted to close two transfer schools — Pacific High School and the Bronx Academy High School — as well as P.S. 30, an elementary school in Queens. A spokeswoman for the city’s Department of education said that, including the decision to shutter Ross Global Charter School, 27 schools will begin closing next year.

It was Chancellor Dennis Walcott’s first panel meeting since Mayor Bloomberg named him to the post. Walcott said he hoped to change the tenor of the meetings by answering parents’ questions and publicly debating policy issues at a deeper level than his predecessors did.

Walcott began the meeting by walking down from the stage and into the crowd, where he promised parents, teachers, and students that he and his staff would respect them.

“You will never hear me be disagreeable with you,” he said. “The one thing we understand is these are emotional issues for you…the approach we’re going to take moving forward is be responsive to those issues even when we don’t agree.”

If audience members heard Walcott’s plea for civility, they betrayed no signs. The boos and catcalls that have peppered panel meetings for months reappeared last night, as did animosity between charter school supporters and the district schools they will have to share space with next year.

Wearing light blue shirts, parents and teachers from Coney Island Prep Charter School sat across the aisle from parents of students and teachers at I.S. 303, who wore orange shirts. Per tonight’s panel vote, Coney Island Prep will move into I.S. 303’s building next year, claiming classrooms that the middle school’s teachers said they need for high-needs special education students, but that city education officials have decided they can do without. Throughout the evening, parents and teachers from the two schools traded shots over which was the better school and why the charter school couldn’t move to another building.

Of the three schools that the panel voted to begin phasing out next year, Bronx Academy proved the most controversial. A large group of students, parents, and teachers attended the meeting tonight to defend the school against closure, citing its students’ improving credit accumulation and Regents passage rates.

In the last seven years, Bronx Academy has seen four principals come and go. It is currently on the state’s list of persistently low-achieving schools. Yet in September, the school began the process of transforming itself. It was given a new principal, Gary Eisinger, and it formed a partnership with Good Shepherd Services, a community-based organization that offers students counseling and support. Bronx Academy also switched from semesters to trimesters, allowing students to 18 credits a year instead of 14.

“I’ve worked in transfer schools, and I’ve never seen a principal work this hard,” said Kevin Towns, an advocate counselor with Good Shepherd. “The data you’re [the DOE] using is from the old regime. These people have been here eight months — let’s be real.”

But Department of Education officials said that they had seen enough of the school’s progress to decide that it wasn’t enough to justify keeping Bronx Academy open.

“The principal has come into a tough set of circumstances, and you do see the impact of his leadership in that school,” said Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg. “Even if there has been improvement, it’s well below what we expect to see. And well below what we see across transfer schools citywide.”

Senior Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky said that only two-thirds of Bronx Academy students were showing up to school every day and only a quarter are passing their Regents exams. Many students are still earning too few credits to graduate on time, he said.

“What I’m seeing is the culture in that school has changed and that is powerful and that is what has generated the positive energy, but the academic expectations have not changed,” Polakow-Suransky said.

Anita Batisti, who directs Fordham University’s school support organization, which oversees Bronx Academy, said she couldn’t understand why the city would want to close an improving school.

“I ask you, please give us more time,” she said.

Monica Major, the panel member appointed by the Bronx borough president, said the DOE was rushing to close a school that was just beginning to show signs of improvement. Although Major proposed that the panel table its plans to vote on the school’s closure, her motion was voted down. The panel also voted to open a new transfer school called Bronx Arena that will replace Bronx Academy.

“Marc, I’m really hoping Arena only gets eight months, the same amount of time you gave this school,” Major said to Deputy Chancellor Sternberg.

Asked after the meeting whether eight months would be enough time to judge one of the city’s 11 transformation schools — many of which have been given new principals and support after years of little progress — Walcott sidestepped the question.

“We can’t tolerate slow, incremental change,” he 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.