in the streets

In a South Bronx district, parents want action on failing schools

P.S. 64 parents Symone Williams (right) and Natasha Campbell outside of the school Wednesday afternoon.

Frustrated parents in one South Bronx district took to the streets Wednesday to raise awareness about the disproportionately high number of failing schools in the neighborhood.

Among their requests: for the city to turn toward District 9 more often when deciding which schools to close.

At P.S. 64, on 170th street, the parents protested during dismissal on a sidewalk just outside the courtyard where parents picked up their children. Next they marched up Webster Avenue to a building that houses two middle schools on the state’s latest list of lowest-performing schools.

The protest struck a nerve with several parents at the elementary school. They collided with the protesters on the sidewalk during dismissal, prompting some to share their own frustrations with P.S. 64. Valerie Fernandez said the homework that her fifth-grade son brought home hardly prepared him to think and write critically. One assignment he had earlier this year was to color in the countries of a world map, Fernandez said.

“I think they should give the principal a chance, but cut the staff,” said Fernandez. “The teachers, they just wait until they can go home.”

Another parent, Natasha Campbell, described the notebook that her daughter, who is in second-grade, brought home from school. Several assignments called for her to write her name down in the notebook over and over again, and now the pages are filled with her name, Campbell said.

P.S. 64 was one of a dozen schools in District 9 to land on the newest state list of schools in need of aggressive intervention this fall. Of the 123 city schools tagged as failing by the state’s new accountability system, more schools came from the district than any other in the city.

District 9 parent organizers recognized many familiar names: Under the outgoing No Child Left Behind accountability system, 26 of the district’s schools were labeled “in need of improvement.”

The new “focus schools” designation makes the schools eligible for federally funded overhauls, but to parents with students in the schools, it is a reminder of how little has changed in the seven years since the district was first categorized as “in need of improvement” under NCLB.

Only about a quarter of students in the district scored proficient on this year’s state reading tests, making it the second-lowest-performing district in the the city for a fifth consecutive year (nearby District 7 ranked last).

Yet a decade of aggressive efforts by the Bloomberg administration to replace struggling schools with new schools, many of them charter schools, have largely passed over District 9. The city has closed about 150 schools and opened nearly the same number of charter schools. District 9’s share: Just five closures and six charter schools.

“In this neighborhood, we get the leftovers, because of where we are,” said Yoshika Buchanan, who joined in Wednesday’s protest. “That’s not fair.”

For the last year, organizers have been working to get officials at both the city Department of Education and the State Education Department to commit to improving the district.

“The help we need is for the voices of parents, teachers, students to be taken seriously,” said Julia Allen, lead organizer for the district’s Parent Action Committee, which organized this week’s protest. “We are generating our own district improvement plan because the district has been unable to for all these years.”

Allen and the Department of Education agree that P.S. 64 is one of the schools that requires an aggressive intervention model. The city has listed P.S. 64 as one of its elementary schools that it could begin phasing out next year, after fewer than one in five of its students passed the state reading exam last year.

On Wednesday, parents and organizers from P.S. 64 suggested that closure wouldn’t be such a bad idea.

Principal Tara O’Brien and District 9 Superintendent Dolores Esposito declined to comment at a meeting for parents about the school’s status on Monday evening. But teachers at the school said high turnover — at least 19 teachers have left since June — and a large number of high-needs students contributed to the school’s struggles. The school is rife with security issues and bullying, parents said. Teachers said there had been tension with the administration and several people spoke of one incident last year that elevated to a physical confrontation and ended with a teacher being removed from the school in handcuffs.

Campbell said she did not want to see the school closed because her daughter liked the school. She said she thought it could be improved if the parents were given more opportunities to participate in activities.

But Buchanan, who transferred her daughter to a higher-rated school in the district this year, disagreed.

“I believe that P.S. 64 needs a fresh start,” she 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.