school closure season

Dozens of teachers, students defend Irving at closure hearing

Parent Gail Wright speaks at Washington Irving High School's closure hearing.

Elected officials who turned out in droves to defend a Harlem school against closure last week stayed home Tuesday night from another century-old Manhattan school also facing the ax.

The city spared Wadleigh Secondary School for Performing Arts from closure in favor of a plan to scrap just its middle school grades, but droves of elected local and state officials and advocacy groups packed the school auditorium in protest anyway during its hearing last week.

There was no such fanfare at Irving, which would phase out completely under the city’s plan, during its closure hearing Tuesday. Instead, just one city councilwoman, Rosie Mendez, joined dozens of Irving teachers, parents, and students in criticizing the Department of Education’s closure proposal.

Over the course of the four-hour-long closure hearing, speaker after speaker explained — as they did during a December rally — that Irving enrolls high-needs, low-income students who are the toughest in the system to serve.

They also said the school’s veteran staff and Principal Bernardo Ascona have remained dedicated to their students despite the school’s uncertain future. This fall, the city reassigned the school from one federally funded improvement model to another, known as “transformation,” then abandoned the plans altogether in December.

A Department of Education official, Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky, said the city had decided keeping Irving open for at least another three years, as the federal School Improvement Grants program required, would have been a disservice to students. The city plans to open two new schools, including one that focuses on software development, in the building this fall to accompany three small schools already open there.

“It is just not true that if you have high-needs kids you cannot succeed,” Polakow-Suransky said. “In a school that is struggling, a culture develops that exists in the school that comes from teachers, students, and administration, where the expectation is that students are not able to achieve.”

The suggestion that Irving’s teachers have low expectations for their students prompted teachers in the audience to shout, “That’s not true. We never said that.” Audience members shouted over Polakow-Suransky throughout the meeting, at one point even calling for his resignation.

Students and parents testified that the school had set them on the path to college and that Ascona, who became principal in 2007, was laying a foundation for the school to improve.

“This man has not just been a principal, he’s been a father to some of these kids,” said Gail Wright, whose daughter is a senior. “They’re telling these children that they matter here.”

Devon Phillip, a senior taking classes in the college-prep International Baccalaureate program, said Irving’s teachers helped him improve his writing and speaking skills. “When you close the school, you take that experience away from me,” he said.

Ishmael Green, a senior from Brooklyn who was placed in Irving when he moved to the city for ninth grade, said the school has pushed him toward graduation and college, despite circumstances that led him to finish high school living on his own.

“It’s all thanks to the great teachers,” he said. “Please let them stay here.”

And teachers said the school’s constantly changing status has eroded their faith in the city’s ability to judge the school’s capacity to improve.

“We are asking the DOE to look at the whole picture. Our students need support from teachers, but also from tutors, social workers, mentors, guidance counselors and other professionals because their lives are extremely difficult,” said Marian Burnbaum, a social studies teacher and School Leadership Team representative. “Our school can improve the performance with the right kind of supports. The transformation model funding was going to do that for us.”

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.