Pomp and Circumstance

With a bang, Harbor School principal graduates beside students

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Students listened to their valedictorian in the rain, before lightning caused the ceremony to be moved inside.

Faculty and students at the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School believe in the Scandinavian saying: There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.

For four years, members of the class of 2012 endured classes in the rain, snow, and sleet as they learned the ins and outs of marine biology and ship engineering through sailing and diving in the New York Harbor.

But that didn’t stop a severe thunderstorm from interrupting their graduation Friday, which was held outside the small public high school’s campus on Governors Island.

When lightning struck yards from where the ceremony was being held, Principal Nate Dudley helped direct an evacuation of the area. Students, teachers, and families fled to shelter in a tunnel in a nearby building, crying young siblings in tow, then waded through ankle-deep puddles to the school’s dining hall. They quickly dismantled tables that had been set for a senior banquet, and the ceremony resumed where it left off, in the middle of the valedictorian Cesar Gutierrez’s speech.

Dudley said that efficiency and resiliency represents the Harbor School. “We roll with whatever happens to make our programs work,” he said.

Dudley, too, was graduating, after overseeing the school since it opened in Bushwick in 2003. This summer he is leaving Harbor School to become a deputy leader in one of the networks that the Department of Education runs to support schools. He’ll also continue working toward a doctorate in education leadership at Seton Hall University.

During Dudley’s time at the school, it moved from a shared building in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn to its current location on Governors Island, where it has a state-of-the-art facility. This fall, the school will open a marine and sciences technology center, paid for with $4 million raised through public money, including grants from the city council, and private donations.

“For a small public school that’s 70 percent free and reduced lunch to raise $4 million — I want to see any other school do that,” Dudley said.

Although Dudley is proud of the school’s big-picture accomplishments, such as mass fundraising and saving oysters unique to New York, he said he was most proud of the students as individuals. As he walked through the halls before graduation, he stopped to high-five or hug every student, teacher, or parent he met.

“Your daughter’s achievement was one of the highlights of my life,” he said to a father. “Not my career — my life.”

Students said they were happy to share the spotlight with their principal, whom they consider a father figure — albeit one who berates them for being late to class. Many students wore sunglasses to the ceremony, despite the cloudy conditions, because they knew tributes to Dudley, as well as their classmates, would make them tear up.

Dudley with the class of 2012 before the ceremony — and the storm.

“He’s a large part of the reason we work so well as a community,”  said Christopher Lorient, who is attending Roger Williams University on a full academic scholarship in the fall. “I like that it feels like he’s graduating with us.”

Dudley was honored with a scholarship established in his name that will be given each year to a graduating senior who has faced adversity. And he said he hopes to stay involved with the school as a board member, especially as the school navigates its 10-year-plan to add more facilities and possibly expand into a middle school.

He and the 74 students who graduated Friday said they will miss the daily ritual of the ferry ride to and from Governors Island everyday.

Graduate Pamela Riera said the ferry ride facilitated a close-knit community.

“You share that experience of getting to school at the same time, leaving from the same ferry, the same place,” Riera said.

But for Dudley — who took an earlier ferry than his students each day — the ride represented a chance to meditate.

“I will miss my morning ritual of the sun coming up over Brooklyn, with the Statue of Liberty on starboard side and the city on port side, and Governors Island and the Harbor School, straight ahead,” he said.

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.