where credit is due

Muted response to Regents' call for credit recovery comments

New York State education officials kicked off a statewide information-gathering tour in Brooklyn on Wednesday about a controversial practice: credit recovery.

Credit recovery involves a variety of alternative academic programs used in schools to offer students a way to make up credits for incomplete or failed courses. It has been lauded by city officials and principals, who have used it as a way to help both failing students and advanced students earn credits that were otherwise unavailable at schools to them.

But critics in New York City have accused Mayor Bloomberg and Department of Education principals of abusing the policy to juke citywide graduation rates, a hallmark accomplishment of his administration. Last year, the city audited about 60 city high schools’ data, including how many credits they issued through credit recovery practices, but has not yet released the results.

The State Education Department formalized the policy in 2010 with a regulation that allows students to gain credits without meeting “seat time” or attendance requirements in limited circumstances. But Associate Commissioner Ken Slentz said on Wednesday that state officials had grown “concerned” that the policy was “not meeting its original intent.”

Testimony from two former teachers, and education expert, and anonymous letters from educators read by parent activist Leonie Haimson appeared to confirm Slentz’s concerns.

They described how principals used credit recovery to boost their schools’ statistics and how students opted for it as an easier way to collect credits.

“Unfettered discretion for principals, who are themselves graded based on the number of credits students earn each year, does not work,” said Marc Korashan, a retired teacher who was active in the UFT’s leadership.

Some credit recovery programs lack rigor, the testimonies said, and others were offered inappropriately. Students at some schools earn credits for completing online gym classes, one educator said. Speaking after testifying, another even described encountering a student whose transcript from a previous school showed seven credits for physical education classes in a single year.

“Allowing credit recovery to address deficiencies piecemeal is an adult-created shortcut which is a disservice to struggling students,” said David Bloomfield, an education professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center.

Bloomfield called for abolishing credit recovery entirely, but others said they thought it could be a useful practice if it underwent major reforms. In fact, the purpose of the town hall meeting, which Regent Kathy Cashin hosted and Chancellor Merryl Tisch attended, was to solicit suggestions for how to overhaul the state’s credit recovery regulations.

Only about two dozen people attended the event at St. Francis College. Slentz said the Brooklyn town hall was the first of several he planned to make on a tour of New York State to solicit advice and insight from educators on how the regulation could be adjusted. He said he expected an updated regulation would be presented to the Board of Regents this spring and in place by September.

Department of Education officials contend that the use of credit recovery happens far less than critics allege. At a City Council hearing on college- and career-readiness last month, Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky said just percent of credits earned last year were through credit recovery.

Grace Zwillenberg, principal of John Adams High School, testified in support of her schools’ credit recovery programs. She said her school offered a variety of programs — over the weekends, on vacations, before and after school, as well as online — and said they were necessary for students who had fallen behind because education was not a priority earlier on in their lives.

“I think the kids sometimes wake up late and really need the opportunity to make up for the lost time,” Zwillenberg said. “Those kids have the right to make up full credits.”

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.