context clues

Dominican families balance schooling with extended trips home

Gregorio Luperon High School serves newcomer students, most of whom come from the Dominican Republic.

It begins in early December. Students pop into the attendance office at Gregorio Luperon High School for Science and Mathematics brandishing plane tickets like doctor’s notes. Then the absences start, weeks before the winter break begins. And then comes the rolling return of students, stretching to the waning days of January.

The annual ritual that takes place at Gregorio Luperon also plays out in other pockets of the city that, like Washington Heights, have many students from the Dominican Republic.

Extended mid-year absences are by no means limited to Dominican students: The New York Times reported this week about post-vacation enrollment flux at Chinatown schools. But educators and community organizations say the phenomenon is especially pronounced at schools with many families from the Dominican Republic — and that the impact can be significant.

About 15 Luperon students missed some amount of school this December and January because they were in the Dominican Republic, according to Luperon’s attendance teacher, and two still hadn’t returned last week.

“They want to see their families back home, especially if they haven’t seen them in a long time,” said Mireya De La Rosa, an assistant principal at Gregorio Luperon who immigrated from the Dominican Republic herself.

Gregorio Luperon — a bilingual school that accepts recent immigrants from Latin America, the majority of whom are Dominican — has made efforts to curb the practice. Teachers broach the issue with families during orientation by telling them that it is not an acceptable for students to miss chunks of school, then remind students in the weeks before winter break about the consequences of missing school. Teachers are discouraged from doling out make-up work to students, so there are real consequences for leaving the country.

Now, only a “micro-, micro-minority” of Luperon families pull their children from school to return home over the holiday season, De La Rosa said.

But, she added, “For us, even five kids is a problem, because those five kids won’t do well when they come back and take the finals.”

Younger children don’t have final exams to grapple with in January, but they still lose out by missing a few days of school, said David Grisevich, an assistant principal at P.S. 152 in Washington Heights.

At P.S. 152, the scattered extended absences during the winter are like “a nagging toothache” for teachers, Grisevich said.

De La Rosa and Grisevich both suggested that the long vacations happen because young, working-class families try to squeeze the most out of a plane ticket by booking outside of peak travel days.

But the explanation for the phenomenon is more complex than just finances.

Joshua Ceballos and Jeyco Consepcion, eighth-graders at the Mirabal Sisters Campus, a Washington Heights building with three middle schools, both missed several days of school this year to spend extended time with their families in the Dominican Republic, Ceballas returning mid-January, Consepcion returning last Monday.

The boys each said that spending time with family was the primary purpose of his trip. “Everybody is there,” Consepcion said. “It’s like home.”

“Over there, it’s better. It’s more active, kids spend their time outside,” Ceballos said. He added that the fresh food is another draw: “Over here the food is fake. Over there, I go with my grandpa to the farm and we get the beans and corn and then my grandma cooks it.”

The boys also explained that schools are different in the Dominican Republic. There, schools hold four-hour shifts in the morning, afternoon, and evening from which students can choose.

Shondel Nero, an associate professor at New York University who directs NYU’s program in multilingual and multicultural studies, explained that in part because of “shift” schooling, missing school is generally not seen as a major problem in the Dominican Republic.

Religion also plays a role, said Nero, who facilitates a study abroad program in the Dominican Republic. Because most Dominicans are “staunch Catholics,” they celebrate holidays well into the month of January, she said. After Christmas and New Years, there are El Dia de los Reyes on Jan. 6 and Our Lady of Altagracia Day Jan. 21.

“Culturally speaking, family and faith are two of the most important things to Dominicans. Sometimes to the detriment of education,” Nero wrote.

Vianca Caceras, a mother of three who works at Turissa Travel in Washington Heights, has pulled her two oldest children out of their Bronx elementary school in the past for a lengthy trip back home. Many of her family members – including her youngest child – live in the Dominican Republic, and she said that it was worth the money and time to travel home with her children.

“The children have 180 days in school, so five days with their family is not a big deal. The family makes sure that the child grows up healthy. It’s important,” Caceras said.

“It’s difficult because two things are important,” she added. “Seeing my other family and my country and making sure that my babies go to school.”

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.