New sheriffs in town

Students bring anti-turnaround message to PEP members

Wassem Albakka, a sophomore from Grady High School, tapes a poster of PEP member Linda Bryant to a fence near her Upper East Side office building.

When student protesters came knocking on the front door of Eduardo Martí’s office building this afternoon, the mayoral appointee to the Panel for Education Policy wasn’t there. The same was true when they tried the offices of fellow appointees Linda Bryant and Judy Bergtraum.

But the band of eight students, all from high schools the city has put up for closure, still used chants, drumming, and “wanted” posters with the panelists faces on them to leave them a message: that they should not vote to close their schools.

A City University of New York official blocked the students from entering Martí’s office on East 80th Street shortly before 3 p.m. But a receptionist listened patiently by phone as Diana Rodriguez, a senior at Grover Cleveland High School, read off a list of “crimes he is wanted for”:

“One, violation of civil rights: He approved 23 school closing affecting 10,000 students. He approved countless policies that have resulted in only 13 percent of Black and Latino students graduating ready for college,” she said. “Two, breach of the public trust: He rubber stamped all of Mayor Bloomberg’s proposals, against the will of parents, students and communities. Three, conflict of interest: He received funds from the mayor’s administration while holding public office.”

Students from Cleveland and Grady, which the city wants to close using the controversial turnaround school reform model this year, were later joined by a student and parent from Legacy High School for Integrated Studies, a small Union Square high school the PEP voted to close this winter.

The students, who were organized by the advocacy group Alliance for Quality Education, said they had two main reasons for protesting: solidarity with the schools that the PEP has already voted to close, and a desire to protect their schools from the turnaround, which would call for the firing of half the schools’ staff and replacing its name. The PEP, which has never rejected a city proposal, will vote on the turnaround proposals on April 26.

Students from William E. Grady Career and Technical Education High School taped the wanted posters–which entreated viewers to call Martí at his office number and say, “you are wanted for crimes against New York City students”—to street poles around the block while two Cleveland students pounded on makeshift bucket-drums.

“I’ve had two years to get comfortable with the teachers,” Wassem Albakka, a sophomore from Grady, told me. “Walking up and down the hallway is going to be a little awkward, seeing teachers we don’t know.”

Students from Grover Cleveland High School bang bucket drums with cooking utensils to share their concerns about Panel for Educational Policy member Eduardo Martí with coworkers outside his East 80th Street offices.

Albakka said he is especially worried about whether the city will fire his football coach, who spends free periods reviewing games with students.

“Grady is like a family,” Mohannad Ikhma, also a sophomore, added. “Alumni come back here to visit. If they take the name away, where are they going to come back to?”

Ikhma also said he expected new teachers would have a difficult time commanding respect from the students, many of whom have rallied in opposition to the turnaround plan at the school in the past month.

Several Upper East Side residents passing by stopped to read the posters and ask the students what they were protesting.

“I don’t have any children in school,” one said. “But why does the mayor want to close the schools?”

At Bryant’s office two blocks north, an employee of Inwood House, the pregnancy-prevention program she runs, opened the building’s front door a crack to tell the students that Bryant was gone for the day, too. Rodriguez offered the woman a “wanted” poster with Bryant’s face on it, and she responded, “How cute,” before shutting the door.

The students also struck out at Bergraum’s office in Midtown West. They were told it was closing for the day when they arrived close to 5 p.m, so they resumed chanting outside the high-rise.

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.