safety patrol

Amid P.S. 51 toxin concerns, city to speed environmental testing

Chancellor Dennis Walcott addresses P.S. 51 parents.

Admitting that they had responded too slowly to news of toxic chemicals at a Bronx elementary school, Department of Education officials said the city would accelerate environmental testing of leased school sites.

At a public meeting tonight for people who attended or worked at P.S. 51, which was shuttered two weeks ago over concerns about toxic chemicals detected there, Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced that the city would complete reviews of 31 sites where leases are up for renewal by the beginning of September.

The announcement comes after mounting criticism of the way the department’s has dealt with toxic chemicals in schools, especially PCBs found in older light fixtures. A nonprofit law firm, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, announced yesterday it planned to sue the DOE over the fixtures on behalf of New York Community for Change, a parent organization.

Hundreds of anxious P.S. 51 parents and students, past and present, came to the Bronx High School of Science tonight to learn more about safety concerns at the school.

Walcott also revealed where P.S. 51’s 225 current students would attend school next month. They will be bused two miles to a Catholic school building, St. Martin of Tours on East 182nd Street, where P.S. 51 will be the only school on site, he said.

Walcott also apologized repeatedly for the DOE’s slow response to the safety concern. The city detected unsafe levels of a toxic chemical at P.S. 51 six months ago, before Walcott became chancellor, but did not disclose that fact to families until this summer.

“I own this,” Walcott said. “I am the chancellor, and I will take full responsibility for this.”

Walcott said there might be a silver lining to the move: St. Martin’s has a gym and an auditorium, which P.S. 51’s building lacked.

But that information came as little consolation to parents who said their children have demonstrated symptoms of exposure to the chemical, trichloroethylene.

Cynthia Rodriguez said her daughter, Erin Arroyo, frequently complained of headaches, dizziness, and sinus problems while attending second grade at P.S. 51 last year.

“There are a lot of symptoms which almost all of our children have,” she said, eliciting applause and murmurs from the audience.

In large doses, the chemical has been linked to cancer and kidney failure. The United Federation of Teachers has asked the city to provide medical screenings for teachers who worked in the school, which had occupied the Jerome Avenue building for nearly two decades.

“They should have notified us in February,” Rodriguez said in an interview. “They’re saying they’re going to give all the information to us, but I didn’t even receive a letter about this meeting.”

She said news of the public meeting circulated by word of mouth among her parent friends.

Word of mouth brought Leona Johnson to the meeting. Her daughter, now 24, attended P.S. 51, she said, and she is concerned that her daughter’s ovarian cysts were caused by exposure to trichloroethlyene.

Johnson was one of several parents who said they were not satisfied with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s answers to questions about how students might have been affected by exposure over the long term.

Nathan Graber, DOHMH’s director of environmental and occupational disease epidemiology, said city officials are concerned about trichloroethylene’s cancer-causing properties but have not yet determined the cancer risk at P.S. 51. He said the city intends to develop a registry of people who spent time in the building but said families and teachers should take concerns to their doctors for now.

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.