transition planning

Growth assured, Democracy Prep plans for a founder-less future

Superintendent Seth Andrew answers questions after the Democracy Prep admissions lottery event earlier this year.

When the first crop of seniors at Democracy Prep Charter High School graduates next June, they won’t be alone. The founder of the school’s network of charter schools will be exiting alongside them.

Seth Andrew, the founder and superintendent of the six-school network, has spent the last week making hundreds of phone calls to friends and professional contacts to let them know that he will be stepping down in June, seven years after launching a middle school steeped in civic values.

Andrew’s decision comes weeks after the U.S. Department of Education announced that Democracy Prep Public Schools would be one of two charter school networks to get federal funding to expand. Democracy Prep will get $9.1 million over five years to open 15 new schools in Harlem; Camden, N.J.; and potentially beyond.

Andrew said the award made him confident that he could depart without destabilizing Democracy Prep — and relieved that the network would be able to grow using only public funds, a value to the network.

“The organization is incredibly healthy,” he said today, speaking by phone from Boston, where he had been meeting with Building Excellent Schools, the nonprofit that helped him start up his first school a decade ago. “This is the time to do a transition.”

Andrew opened his flagship middle school, Democracy Prep Charter School, in 2006 with a $30,000 grant from the city’s Center for Charter School Excellence (now named the New York City Charter School Center). He expanded to a high school in 2009 to accommodate his graduating eighth-graders and has since opened three more middle schools.

Last year, Andrew was granted permission to acquire a charter to run a failing elementary school, Harlem Day Charter School. Mayor Bloomberg declared the takeover a success last spring, in the process comparing Andrew to Jeremy Lin, a basketball player who was then on a streak with the Knicks.

Accelerating its expansion plans doesn’t mean that Democracy Prep is giving up on the idea of taking over struggling schools, Andrew said. The network’s application for the federal grant explicitly asked for permission to create new schools and take over existing ones, he said, adding that conversations are underway in the city and elsewhere about both strategies.

Andrew will help engineer the first round of new schools because he will continue to run Democracy Prep until the end of the school year while the school’s board searches for his replacement. Using the consulting firm Bellwether Education Partners for support, the board members will look across the country and at “some very strong internal candidates,” he said today, hours before sending a mass email announcing his impending departure.

A graduate of the Bronx High School of Science who taught briefly in Massachusetts and Korea early in his career, Andrew said he doesn’t know what he will be doing a year from now — only that he will still be running his fledgling parent advocacy group, Democracy Builders, and working toward the same goal that motivated him to start Democracy Prep.

“My life’s work is truly high quality education for every child in the world,” he said. “I am considering everything and there are certainly lots of different ways and different places to make impact.”

But he said there are two areas of education policy that he thinks need particular attention right now. The first is the “talent pipeline” that brings teachers and principals to schools. Too often, he said, policy makers have focused on rules about firing bad teachers, when they should be thinking more about how to recruit and create great ones.

“There’s no way to get rid of teachers and just think that fixes schools,” Andrew said.

The other is the concept that Neerav Kingsland, a New Orleans charter school advocate, calls “relinquishment.” Rather than centralize control, Kingsland argues, superintendents should let families and schools make decisions for themselves, while still holding schools accountable for their performance.

“I’m interested in being disruptive and trying to push new boundaries in those fields,” Andrew said today.

Within the city’s guarded charter school sector, Andrew stands out for more than his ubiquitous yellow Democracy Prep hat. He and Democracy Prep’s board made a decision to tie his salary to the Department of Education’s salary structure for a similar position, even as some charter school operators earned salaries twice as high. They also avoided allowing the network’s schools to become dependent on private fundraising, an essential support for some charter schools.

And while he eagerly touts his schools’ academic accomplishments, he sometimes sounds even more excited about their civic engagement. He required students to attend and participate in civic events, and sent them out to canvass the Harlem community to vote on Election Day. Four Democracy Prep students attended the Democratic National Convention with him last month.

“I have great respect for the work he’s done in Harlem and the civic engagement he’s instilled in every Democracy Prep student,” said Mona Davids, a former charter school parent who has been a vocal critic of some charter school practices. She said Andrew was among the first charter leaders she met when she started a charter school parent advocacy group in 2009.

Davids said she regularly fought with Andrew because she said he refused to start a parent association at the school. “We just agree to disagree on that.”

After drawing the spotlight to himself this week, Andrew said he hopes attention will soon shift to the network of schools he has spent developing for the better part of his career so far.

He added, “Democracy Prep should not be about me, it should be about vision and implementation. Right now Democracy Prep and Seth are kind of synonymous, and that’s an unhealthy thing.”

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.