panic attack

As dust settles after strike threat, questions about city's urgency

School buses at Coney Island in 2008.

For Simon Jean-Baptiste, a veteran school bus driver who belongs to Local 1181, the city’s announcement Friday that his union could go on strike at any moment was news to him.

“It’s the city that we heard that from,” Jean-Baptiste said today.

Jean-Baptiste, a former vice president in the union, said he had no idea there was any kind of citywide strike threat until he first heard about it from media reports prompted by a last-minute press conference called by Mayor Bloomberg on Friday. Bloomberg warned that Local 1181’s leadership opposed the city’s plans for a new contract for pre-kindergarten bus drivers because the city would not guarantee job security for experienced drivers. As a result, he said, an “immediate” strike was possible.

At the same time, Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott sent a comprehensive plan to principals for how they should handle a strike should it occur.

Hours later, Local 1181 President Michael Cordiello said in a statement that a strike over seniority rights was “likely” but not imminent. Today, Cordiello said in a statement that the union was beginning to weigh its options.

“We do not want to strike, but we have been forced to keep our options open by cost-cutting proposals by Mayor Bloomberg,” he said.

As buses rolled up to schools on time this morning, and with no strike imminent, some are questioning the urgency with with Bloomberg and Walcott presented the threat.

The prospect of a school bus strike didn’t even register at a Panel for Educational Policy meeting Thursday evening, even though the group is responsible for voting on all busing contracts.

A PEP member, Patrick Sullivan, said he suspected that the Friday hype was meant to “demonize” the bus drivers union in order to turn public opinion against its demands.

“I think it’s appalling, really,” said Sullivan, a frequent critic of DOE policies. “[City officials] clearly had a whole plan of action planned and the next day they went out to the press and all of a sudden a strike was imminent. It seems the goal of it was to make parents afraid.”

Jean-Baptiste said union members would likely discuss the contract issue for the first time at a delegates meeting Tuesday evening.

“What is striking to me is that the city is panicking about whether there will be a strike, but the union never mentioned anything like that,” he said. “I think the city is spreading fear.”

That’s a view that Sam Pirozzolo, a parent leader on Staten Island, home to many of the bus contractors that do business with the city, expressed in an op-ed on Saturday. After speaking to union officials and quickly realizing that the threats were not as urgent as the city said, Pirozzolo wrote that he saw the press attention as meant “to instill fear throughout the city that a school bus strike was imminent.”

It isn’t the first time the bus drivers’ union has threatened to strike. It happened in 2006 and again when members authorized a strike last year (an actual strike hasn’t taken place in New York City since 1979). But this appears to be the first time in recent years that the city has worked to defuse a strike threat before union leaders even issued it publicly.

Education officials said the press conference was a direct response to what the bus drivers union had told them directly: that the drivers would strike systemwide.

“The purpose of the press conference was to inform parents about contingency plans and how they can prepare,” a DOE spokeswoman said.

Principals we contacted about the bus strike warnings offered a muted response, with one saying that the warnings were intense but not a distraction.

“It came amidst so much other business that it was hard to get too excited about,” emailed the principal, who works at a neighborhood school where few students ride school buses. She said her school had received Walcott’s letter and additional information about the threat three times.

“It did seem like a large reaction, but I guess I’d rather that they had a plan in place ahead of time than be left improvising after the fact, particularly in instances where there actually is advance knowledge.”

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.