network diagnostics

Tensions flare as officials defend their school support systems

Councilman Jackson waives at Shael Polakow-Suransky (far right) during a hearing on the networks.

Facing criticism that the Department of Education does not hold the organizations responsible for supporting schools accountable for their success, Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky told members of the City Council today that the opposite is true.

In fact, he said during a heated hearing about the department’s network support structure, he has changed the leadership of 15 of the department’s 55 networks.

“Fifteen of those [former network leaders] are people that I did not have confidence in and we wanted someone to do better,” Polakow-Suranksy told the city council members during a lengthy hearing. “There is very clear accountability.”

That revelation was one of many data points he and other top officials shared this afternoon at a City Council Education Committee hearing on the school networks and their nebulous roles supervising each of the city’s 1,700 schools. The networks fit into a complicated and at times unintuitive picture of the school system’s structural make-up. They were created in 2007, several years after Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office and his former schools chancellor, Joel Klein, dissolved the 32 Community School Districts that once supervised the city’s schools and made academic and operational decisions.

Now, instead of being placed into networks based on their schools’ geography, principals are able to select which networks to join based on the philosophies and support systems they offer. And in turn, networks play the dual role of helping schools improve and communicating with the department’s superintendents who decide what teachers and principals should get tenure or be replaced.

Under duress from Councilman Robert Jackson, the committee chair, and several other councilmembers who spent hours grilling him on the ways the department hold schools and networks accountable, Polakow-Suransky conceded that the department should be more transparent about the role of the networks.

“The larger point you’re making—have we not done a good job sharing with the public all the information we have and can share—is right,” he said.

The information has never been a secret, department officials said, but they have never made an effort to make it public, for example by posting it on the department’s website in this level of detail.

To keep tabs on the networks, department officials said they evaluate them in six areas, from the rigor of their academics to their efforts to engage families, and then share those evaluations with school principals who may  be considered whether to join or leave a network. Beyond that, officials shared few new pieces of information on the networks, whose day-to-day operations have been largely unknown to the public since they were created in 2007.

The details shared this afternoon included a list of the 55 networks, which are organized into five clusters, and the names of each of their leaders, a map of where the networks’ have their offices, and a chart detailing how the department has funded the networks over the years. The main takeaway of that chart is that funding for the networks has decreased since 2007, from $250 million to $181 million in 2011. Those funds pay the salaries of the cluster and network personnel, the district superintendents, special education committees and partnership support organizations.

Officials also provided a chart of the structure of the networks, which each have 15 employees ranging from the leader and deputy leader to operations consultants and academic “achievement” coaches. The list of  their jobs is long, according to the powerpoint presentation officials presented; the networks are in charge of providing targeted professional development to school staff in need, creating reports on special education, making sure schools can access data on their students and operations, and educating families about their children’s education.

As Polakow-Suransky walked the committee through the powerpoint presentation on the networks, Jackson interrupted him several times to criticize the amount of time it took for the department to submit requested information to the City Council. Jackson repeatedly told Polakow-Suransky that he would have to make more information about the networks public “right now,” and criticized Polakow-Suransky’s sometimes-vague responses.

“You’re getting me a little annoyed here,” Jackson said at one point, waving his arms at Polakow-Suransky.

“Likewise,” Polakow-Suransky responded.

After he spoke, a network leader, a superintendent and a school principal recounted stories of how they help the schools under their purview, and how they work with each other.

“I am personally in schools working with principals almost every single day,” said Alinson Sheehan, the Children First Network 102 leader. She told a story of how her network, which includes 33 schools from Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx, supported one struggling Manhattan high school with an ineffective leader,  which she did not name.

Serapha Cruz, the principal of the Bronx School of Science Inquiry, a middle school, said her network, CFN 411, has helped her avoid closure.

“An achievement coach worked in our school with our teachers to create a much calmer school environment,” she said. “Five years later our school is a much safer place, with 95 percent attendance. Networks can have a profound and positive impact on schools.”

“My team had been supporting this school, incuding weekly meetings with the principal, the liaons helped with attendance interventions for students, and i also did classroom interventions, but the school was still struggling. despite our intentions the supports didn’t seem to be improving thelearning environment at the school. ”

Before deciding the principal ought to be replaced, She sought the advice of Tamika Matheson, the district superintendent of Manhattan High Schools. “Things aren’t perfect… but student attendance is up and teacher morale is also up.”

Even as Matheson, Sheehan and Cruz recounted the good that can come from a strong network-school-superintendency relationship, city council members remained skeptical of the networks’ value.

“I talk to all my principals, [and] I don’t know anyone who is satisfied with the current system,” Councilman Mark Weprin said. “Give me a superintendent and ten staffers and I will run my school district better than you are.”

Polakow-Suransky countered that he was familiar with many school administrators who are much more satisfied with the current network structure than they were a decade ago, when the schools were run by community districts. But Weprin was unconvinced.

School leaders, he said, “are afraid of their own shadows. They don’t want to do anything without checking behind them to make sure they’re not getting fired.”

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.