point by point

Bloomberg credits boosts in test results to new school initiatives

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott, and Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky walked reporters through a powerpoint presentation on the city’s latest test score results.

This afternoon, Mayor Michael Bloomberg enjoyed what could be his last opportunity to point to clear gains on city test data.

The state is overhauling its testing program next year, and year-to-year comparisons favored by Bloomberg’s test analysts will soon become futile.

Until then, city officials are championing the small gains almost every group of students made on this year’s state tests, calling the scores a sign that some fledgling school initiatives are already working.

Breaking the test results down by race, grade level and students with disabilities, each group saw gains of one to four percentage points for the numbers of students scoring proficient on the literacy and math exams. But students of color are still performing well below their white peers, and the number of English Language Learners scoring proficient in literacy actually dropped by 1.8 percentage points.

“There is still a gap, and it is unacceptable, inexcusable and it is our responsibility to rectify it,” Bloomberg told reporters this afternoon.  He speculated that the ELL scores dropped because the city has begun declassifying greater numbers of ELL students who have become proficient in English.

The much-touted Young Men’s Initiative would help overcome the racial performance gap, Bloomberg said. He attributed minority students’ gains to the early efforts of that initiative and two others: the push toward aligning lessons to new state standards called the Common Core, and the Department of Education’s plans to improve middle schools.

Last year, Chancellor Dennis Walcott said he would make boosting poor eighth grade literacy scores the focus of his Middle School Initiative. In 2011, the number of eighth graders scoring proficient on the literacy exams dropped. This year that number increased by 4 percentage points.

“Congratulations,” Bloomberg said to Walcott, striking a cheerful tone as he stepped away from the podium at a press conference, “This is an accomplishment you’re going to look back on for the rest of your life.”

Teachers union President Michael Mulgrew praised the middle school gains in a statement, but cautioned that the city had more work to do to close the racial achievement gap, particularly in literacy.

“Not only do black and Hispanic students still lag well behind whites and Asians,” he wrote, “but in the ELA results the gap actually widened this year.”

Another improvement Bloomberg heralded in the press conference were the gains charter schools made. On average, city charter school students gained seven points in English, and 3.5 points in math.

“Progress is especially evident, you know, in our charter schools,” he said, adding that 24 more charter schools will be opening in the city in the fall. “Charter schools are phenomenally popular for people who know where it really matters to them… We can’t possibly handle the demand from parents for the charter schools they’re just off the charts.”

Critics say these results mean less than they did in years past because the exams are poised to change dramatically to reflect the new Common Core State Standards, and because several poorly written test questions had to be thrown out.

Bloomberg waved off the suggestion that the test results are less valid, singling out one infamous question about a pineapple that set off flurry of testing criticism last spring.

“No matter how much you argue that the pineapple was a ridiculous question, every kid in the state had the pineapple question,” he said.

Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky said schools could use this years data to see how well they are teaching certain academic skills, even though many will be reinventing their test preparation strategies before next year’s new exams.

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.