know your neighbors

Harlem leaders champion new school run by Teachers College

Principal Worrell-Breeden looked on as first graders from the Teachers College Community School sang "What a Wonderful World" and recited the song in sign language.

West Harlem community leaders heralded the coming of the year-old Teachers College Community School yesterday as a new district school option for a neighborhood packed with charter schools.

The elementary school, which opened in East Harlem last year and moved to Manhattanville this fall, is managed by Columbia University’s school of education.

In recent years, many new schools have come to West Harlem in the form of high-profile charter school networks that have brought both educational opportunities and controversy to the neighborhood. Like those schools, the fledgling elementary school admits students randomly through a lottery process, and it relies on a mix of public and private funding to operate.

But it also has the widespread support of political leaders who have served as some of the most vocal critics of the city’s charter school policies, among them State Assemblyman Keith Wright. Wright has proposed legislation to give parent councils veto power over city plans to require district and charter schools to share space.

A range of Harlem community leaders, including City Councilman Robert Jackson and Donald Notice, president of the West Harlem Development Corporation, turned out to the school’s opening ceremony yesterday to laud the effort Columbia has made to support the school and help renovate its new, permanent home on Manhattanville’s Morningside Avenue.

Wright was sitting in the audience until Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch offered to give him her seat on the ceremony stage, which was shared by Chancellor Dennis Walcott and other leaders from Columbia University, Teachers College and the community.

Jackson said, “Every parent has a right to choose what’s best for their child—no matter who you are, you have to decide. Isn’t that right, Keith?”

“Yep,” he replied, grinning.

The leaders on stage said the school represented the fruits of a sometimes tense collaboration between the neighborhood and the university, and paved the way for more collaboration through Teachers College. Columbia has long been criticized by Harlem residents for developing land into university buildings that make the areas less affordable. University President Lee Bollinger said the school epitomized efforts to mend neighborly relations.

With an allusion to one of the Harlem Renaissance’s most famous poems, Wright suggested that the effort was slow to come, but very valuable:

“What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up. like a raisin in the sun?” he said, quoting Langston Hughes. “No. A school gets built on 126th Street.”

The Community School opened in 2011 with 50 Kindergarten students, but because that location still needed renovations, the city placed it in a temporary home in East Harlem—about a mile from the neighborhood it was designed to serve. That design was set three years ago amidst a contentious university bid to expand into the Manhattanville part of Harlem. At the time, Columbia University agreed to help found a new neighborhood elementary and middle school, among other promises made to various Harlem leaders, to encourage them to to withdraw their opposition to its plans.

“This went through a lot of changes and a lot of negotiations here and there as part of a larger agreement with the community. And this is an experiment,” Jackson said to the audience, which was filled with families, teachers and students just out of school. “Is it going to work? You better believe it’s going to work, because all the [organizations] up here are going to make sure it’s going to work.”

Now that the school has settled into its new home, the principal Jeanene Worrell-Breeden, said the biggest logistical challenge is behind, but there is still more work to be done.

“Our challenge was finding a new home. Now, it’s just to make sure our children’s needs are met and make sure they’re settled. We’re making sure to include all those new families,” she said in an interview.

Parents who attended the gathering said they were very pleased with their choice, made after weighing options that consisted of mostly charter schools.

Julate Walker, whose daughter is in first grade, said she was directed to the Community School by the administrators of the nearby KIPP Infinity Charter School, which already had filled its roster when she looked into applying in 2011.

“I’m absolutely very satisfied here,” she said. “I feel very included, it’s like a family. Everybody is caring and considerate.”

Another parent said she heard about the school when she attended an information session for the French American Charter School, another nearby elementary school.

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.