unlikely opposition

Bill to help charters serve high-needs students finds foe in union

The state teachers union is lobbying against a bill that would allow charter schools to serve students with special needs more readily.

The bill would allow charter schools, which essentially operate as one-school districts now, to pool their resources to offer special services to students with disabilities and English language learners. The bill was introduced in April, just weeks before state charter school authorizers proposed enrollment targets to comply with a requirement added to the state’s charter school law in 2010 that the schools serve “comparable” numbers of students with special needs.

Charter school advocates have spent recent weeks lobbying for The Charter School Students With Special Needs Act and until now had encountered little resistance in Albany. The bill sailed through the State Senate’s education committee, and Assemblyman Karim Camara introduced an Assembly version two weeks ago.

But last week, NYSUT circulated a memo urging lawmakers to reject the bill. The memo lauded the bill’s sponsors and acknowledged charter schools’ challenges in serving special needs student populations. But it also warned that the bill could result in “a huge expansion of charter schools” and create an arrangement in which charter schools “segregate all of their students with disabilities to one site.”

The bill would allow charter schools to form consortiums to serve students with special needs. Under the proposed law, a consortium might assign one school to serve students with autism, while another school would hire staff who is specially trained to help students who are emotionally disturbed. Or it might hire teachers jointly who can assist students with disabilities in multiple schools.

Those practices “would result in warehousing special needs’ students,” a NYSUT official said about the bill.

Groups that advocate for charter schools in the city and across the state charged that the union “misunderstands and misrepresents” the bill in a memo of their own.

“This bill provides no new resources for charter schools and creates no new space under the cap,” reads the memo, which was distributed by New York Charter Schools Association and the New York City Charter School Center. “It simply provides a new, voluntary tool for charter schools to serve more students with a wider variety of special needs. We are troubled that NYSUT would oppose such an outcome.”

The memo adds, “The bill merely allows charter schools to do what school districts across New York State do now: gather students with similar needs to provide specialized program.” (New York City is moving away from this model and instead is requiring all schools to accommodate the students who enroll, regardless of their needs.)

NYCSA President Bill Phillips said he thought NYSUT’s opposition was more pragmatic than ideological. “Obviously, they don’t want more children to go to charters because a portion of the funding follows the child, and that’s a NYSUT membership problem,” he said.

The vast majority of charter schools don’t employ unionized staff members, a major point of contention for NYSUT, which has 600,000 members. NYSUT and the city’s teachers union, the UFT, have also criticized charter schools for failing to serve a fair share of students with special needs.

In a sign of the union’s considerable political muscle, the last-minute push to defeat the bill has suddenly cast doubt that the bill will pass at all.

“I would assume that the Assembly would not pass a bill that NYSUT opposes like this,” an Albany source said, alluding to the Assembly’s traditional reluctance to flout the union’s  under the leadership of Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Charter school advocates said that they are still holding out hope that the bill will pass. The legislative session ends on Thursday, but lawmakers are racing to wrap up all of their bills by today Tuesday, to allow for a three-day waiting period that is required for public review before final votes are taken.

NYSUT’s memo about the charter school bill is below, followed by the charter sector’s memo:

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.