rocking the vote

City extends parent elections but doesn't heed calls to start over

Under pressure from elected officials and organized parents, the Department of Education is delaying elections for district parent councils until next week.

For weeks, parent leaders have been simmering with anger over problems in the city’s handling of elections for district Community Education Councils. They have charged that the city did too little to recruit candidates, turned away some eligible parents, and hid the names of candidates behind password protection.

The criticism escalated today, as Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio announced plans for a press conference Tuesday to demand that the city halt the elections, which they called “deeply flawed and undemocratic.” At the same time, a group of parents, spearheaded by Mona Davids of the New York City Parents Union, filed today for a restraining order to halt the elections.

This afternoon, the city announced it would delay the election proceedings by a week. “After reviewing concerns raised by parents and public officials about this year’s Citywide and Community Education Council elections, I have concluded that the process could and should have been handled better,” Chancellor Dennis Walcott said in a statement.

The elections happen in two phases. In the first, all parents can weigh in through an online “straw poll,” and in the second, members of schools’ parent organizations make official selections, using the the straw poll results as guidance. The first phase was scheduled to close on Saturday and the second phase was scheduled to begin tomorrow. Now, the second phase will be extended by a week, and parent association members will have an additional week to register their recommendation votes.

Walcott said the city would use the extra week to “make sure that information about candidates is distributed widely so that the process is as inclusive as possible.” Council members will still start their terms on July 1 as planned, he said.

But an extra week is not enough to fix flaws in the elections, Davids said. “They said they’re going to delay the selection. Well, that still doesn’t solve the problem,” she said. “We want the entire process thrown out and restarted again and done properly.”

Six parents signed on to Davids’ petition for a restraining order against Walcott over the elections, which was filed at 6 p.m. Judge Shirley Heitler set a hearing for 7 p.m. but the city announced its one-week delay at 6:30 p.m. and will meet with Davids and other parents tomorrow, according to Arthur Schwartz, the lawyer representing the parents. Davids said they would move forward with a more extensive lawsuit designed to have the election results discarded.

Last week, Stringer called on the city to redo the elections, but Walcott said at the time they would go on as planned.

“I cannot stress enough the importance of parent involvement in our schools and the Office for Family Information and Action will take all necessary steps to ensure that all of our parents have an opportunity to cast a vote in the CEC elections by May 7th,” Walcott said in a statement at the time.

Also last week, Walcott told Patrick Sullivan, a school board member, that the city had received complaints from 70 parents, according to an email from Walcott that Sullivan sent to reporters.

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.