Matt Damon criticizes Eva Moskowitz's charters at D.C. rally

A contingent of New York teachers joined thousands of protesters from across the country in Washington, D.C. on Saturday to march against the Obama administration’s education policies.

Joining them was actor and budding philanthropist Matt Damon, who railed against “corporate reformers.” In an interview with GothamSchools, Damon exhibited a familiarity with New York City education politics, criticizing co-locations of charter schools and district schools and calling out the Success Charter Network in particular.

The march was the main draw of a four-day event called “Save Our Schools,” which included a conference and a film festival. A coalition of more than 100 teachers came down from New York City, including groups from the United Federation of Teachers (this reporter embedded with a UFT-sponsored charter bus) and the Grassroots Education Movement. GEM also hosted a workshop at the conference and showed its documentary film The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting For Superman to an audience of about 250.

More than a dozen speakers – including Diane Ravitch, Jonathan Kozol, Deborah Meier – spoke at a rally that directly preceded the march. The lineup featured songs, performances, poem readings, in addition to a pre-taped message from The Daily Show host Jon Stewart (here’s an excerpt).

But it was the Academy Award winner Damon who the drew top bill. The audience waited two hours in sizzling temperatures to hear him speak and judging by their response, he did not disappoint.

Damon called the last decade “horrible” and “demoralizing” for teachers and said an overemphasis on high-stakes testing is not what helped him succeed professionally.

“My teachers were empowered to teach me. Their time was not taken up with a bunch of silly test prep, a bunch of drill and kill nonsense that any serious person knows doesn’t promote real learning,” he said to rousing cheers.

Here’s the speech in its entirety:

In an interview, Damon said that he was troubled by the trend of co-locations in New York City, even referencing a recent Daily News report on the marketing expenditures at Success Network Charter Schools.

“Eva Moskowitz just spent $1.7 million in advertising, as in marketing for her…so it’s like, you know, the kind of core inequality has to be addressed,” he said. The figure cited in the article is actually $1.6 million. A spokeswoman for the Success Network disputed the total.

Here’s video of that interview, which also includes an idea to cut the military budget to reform national education policy.

Damon, the founder of, an organization committed to bringing clean drinking water to third world countries, is known for his social awareness, and attended SOS in part because his mother, Nancy Carlsson-Paige, is a well-known early education professor and outspoken critic of high-stakes testing.

The purpose of the march was to end at the White House to deliver President Obama a list of demands. The demands included an end to high-stakes testing as a factor in teacher evaluations, compensation and school closures; smaller class sizes; less curricular emphasis on math and reading; and a greater role in policy-making by teachers, parents and community leaders.

It’s not clear why the march didn’t end up delivering the list of demands, but it did attract the attention of the Obama administration. On Thursday, Arne Duncan met with several of the SOS March’s core organizers — Duncan called the meeting ‘useful‘ but organizers disagreed — and President Obama invited them back to the White House on Friday. The organizers declined and the two parties did not end up meeting.

Supporters estimated the total crowd at more than 5,000 teachers, but no official estimate was provided by the Washington D.C. police department.

As a kicker, here’s a video of Taylor Mali reading his famous poem, “What Teachers Make”

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.