teacher prep

Department of Education wants the state to let it certify teachers

If the Department of Education gets its way, new teachers won’t have to enroll in local colleges or universities to get certification to work in city schools.

Shael Polakow-Suransky, the department’s second in command, said today that the department would ask the state for permission to certify teachers internally by using top educators to train new recruits in shortage areas. Currently, teachers must either have completed an education certification program at a college or university or be enrolled in one.

Traditional teacher preparation programs have not produced enough special education or science teachers to fill the city’s needs, Polakow-Suransky said. Reforms to the way students with disabilities are served this year have pushed the city to offer current teachers an incentive to take classes that would allow them to lead special education classes.

“We don’t want to have to depend on a university in order to train our teachers,” he said this afternoon. “Already, we’re having to retrain many teachers when they come into the system because they don’t have the skills that they need.”

State officials say they will consider the city’s application when it is formally filed. But if approved, the proposal would build on several other changes to teacher preparation rules that the state has rolled out in recent years in response to growing criticism that teachers trained in the traditional way are not always up to par.

In 2009, state officials announced that alternative certification programs such as Teach for America would become eligible to certify teachers without partnering with a college or university to provide training, as they always had. This past June, the American Museum of Natural History became the first non-graduate school to gain state permission to certify teachers.

Last year, a new graduate school of education, Relay GSE, opened with an exclusive mission of training teachers while they are already working in schools; several charter school networks now use it to train their teachers exclusively, and some district teachers attend as well. The state is currently in the process of adopting new certification standards that focus more on real teaching and less on written tests and other benchmarks to prove competence.

But no district has yet been granted permission to certify its own teachers. Such a move would grant an unprecedented level of authority to local education officials while heightening competition with existing teacher preparation programs.

Under the proposal, which the city has not yet made formally, the department would fast-track teachers into the classroom for areas where more teachers are needed, including special education and science. They would work in thriving schools alongside strong teachers who would serve as instructors in an arrangement similar to that of small-scale residency programs that the city introduced last year.

The difference would be that no higher education institution would have to be involved, saving both teachers and the city on tuition while freeing up more of teachers’ time to focus on on-the-ground needs.

Polakow-Suransky announced the proposal while testifying before Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s education reform commission this afternoon during a meeting that was held at a teaching college, Bank Street College of Education.

“While we have some really powerful partnerships with higher education, the capacity to drive teacher development exists within the system,” Polakow-Suransky said. He added, “I don’t think the higher education programs are going away, and that wouldn’t be my intention.”

The program would not award master’s degrees and would not supplant the city’s longstanding Teaching Fellows program, which brings new teachers into the classroom full-time while also requiring them to take classes at local universities. But Polakow-Suransky left open the possibility that a department-run certification program could expand in the future.

“This would be initially small because we have to prove that we can do this well,” he said. “Who knows where it will lead in the long run?”

Jon Snyder, a dean at Bank Street, said during the commission meeting it would be a mistake to let all of the certification power rest with either higher education or the city alone, because a major problem facing teacher training is the fact that pre-service training does not match up with in-service needs. “We are going to recreate our existing problem” if the city gains more authority over teacher certification, he said.

The city has already had informal conversations about the proposal with Commissioner John King, Polakow-Suransky said. “He didn’t say no. He didn’t say yes either.”

Today, King said, “We’ll review what the city is proposing. Our top priority is to ensure that new teachers have content knowledge and instructional skills to successfully prepare people for college and careers.”

But Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said the proposal deserved consideration because it aims to solve a problem — a shortage of teachers in certain areas — that has existed for decades at least.

“You can’t just keep identifying the same problem areas and tread water on difficult questions and say you are moving the system forward,” Tisch said. “Everything needs to be on the table.”

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.