mic check

Protest derails DOE meeting on curriculum after just minutes

The possibility of a public comment session evaporated just moments into tonight’s Panel for Educational Policy meeting, after nearly 200 protesters drowned out Department of Education officials.

The panel had convened for a special meeting about the city’s new curriculum standards. But as Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott and the standards’ architect, David Coleman, took the stage at Seward Park High School, protesters aligned with the Occupy movement launched a chorus of complaints via “the people’s mic.”

“Mic check!” each protester would call out, commanding the attention of his or her compatriots. Then he or she would call out a statement, pausing after every few words so that others could repeat them, amplifying the statement without the help of a microphone.

“The DOE’s priorities! Are all wrong!” one protester shouted. “We would like! There to be a community conversation! a real community conversation! about the people’s priorities!”

“We want our teachers to be paid more,” yelled a 7-year-old, Anais Richard, who attends P.S. 11 in Brooklyn. “If these things are not done, then we won’t be able to be succeeded.” The people’s mic repeated her statement, complete with the misspoken final word. 

Walcott delivered his opening remarks over the shouting. At one point, he said, “We appreciate the activism, and we look forward to having you participate in our discussion.”

But when Walcott turned the microphone over to Coleman, the tone shifted.

Coleman looked out at the half-filled auditorium, turned to Walcott, and asked if the chancellor thought it was time to shift gears. The pair conferred for a moment and then called off the question-and-answer portion of the event, instead ushering attendees to the third floor, where classrooms had been prepared for small-group sessions about the core standards.

Members of the panel, who had not said anything in the auditorium, left the stage with Walcott and Coleman.

The protesters stayed downstairs and continued chanting. Asked why they had not signed up to attend — and potentially disrupt — the small-group sessions, protesters said they had not wanted to raise the ire of more than a dozen police officers stationed in and around the building. Based on the number of people who entered the meeting, Walcott said there would be 14 small-group meetings, but only three went forward.

At about 7:20 p.m., the protesters, whose numbers had dwindled, filed out of the building, but not before they promised another action in the Occupy Public Education movement: a “general assembly” on the steps of Tweed Courthouse, the Department of Education’s headquarters, next month.

To reporters, Walcott said tonight’s meeting had accomplished its goal, even though it hadn’t gone exactly according to plan.

“The event is still taking place and people are still getting information,” he said. “We wanted to have a large group setting where David would talk to the audience and then give them a question an answer session. That couldn’t happen.”

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.