won't back down

As city is urging, hurricane days prompt some to learn at home

Second-grader Jacob Stone and fourth-grader Thomas Daniel trick-or-treated in Harlem with Wanda Fisher.

As it became clear on Wednesday that city schools would not be able to reopen this week because of damage to the city’s infrastructure, concern deepened at the Department of Education.

The department has ramped up a push to toughen academic standards this year, and a week off eight weeks into the semester — even if the days are likely to be made up later — could set back those efforts.

So department officials started compiling worksheets, suggested study schedules, test preparation guides, and lists of television shows with educational merit for students in each grade. On Wednesday night, they emailed principals to ask them to send a message alerting families to the new resources.

“We know that you and your students are eager to get back to school, and we are working hard to reopen schools as soon as possible,” Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky wrote in the message to families, which schools without power could have difficulty distributing. “In the meantime, we are encouraging students and their parents to continue learning at home during this time away from school.”

He suggested that families look to a silver lining in this week’s storm clouds: “Extra time at home is an opportunity to begin or continue planning for your future after graduation,” he wrote.

It’s an approach that some families and schools have taken since early in the week, when Hurricane Sandy’s danger passed for the many New Yorkers living out of the flood zone and in areas that retained electrical power.

When her nephews finished the homework they brought home on Friday, Wanda Fisher said her husband started quizzing them on mental math problems.

“You did math, multiplication, subtraction, division,” Fisher reminded the boys, second-grader Jacob Stone and fourth-grader Thomas Daniel, as they trick-or-treated in Harlem on Wednesday afternoon.

“And then we did plus/minus, and addition,” Stone added. A second-grader at P.S. 200, Stone said he had spent the days since the storm “reading and watching TV and seeing the hurricane.”

Other parents said they also had pushed their children to go above and beyond the homework assignments they received last week.

“I want them to be safe, but I want them to keep up with their education, too,” said Rosy Lopez, whose son Joseph is in first grade in Harlem’s P.S. 46. She said she had made sure Joseph had tackled all of the work that his teachers had sent home, which included social studies, and math. Then he read books about pirates and the movie “Toy Story.”

Some schools were able to give families additional assignments to keep students busy and engaged with academics.

Ralph Martinez, the principal of P.S. 89 in the Bronx, said his teachers had posted new homework assignments and practice materials online using the program Jupiter Grade. But he said not every student has internet access at home.

Martinez, who said he was not concerned about his Bronxwood school building because of its elevated location, had driven into Manhattan on Wednesday with his two sons, who attend Catholic school, to buy ice and stock up on other supplies. They live in New Jersey and have been without power since Tuesday.

“Many of our teachers live in Rockland County. Fortunately they’re okay, but without light, like I am,” Martinez said. “We have been emailing each other back and forth, almost every day.”

Not every school had taken that approach as of Wednesday, and some that were most affected by the storm are not likely to be able to. Department officials said 200 school buildings were “not operational” because of the storm, including 86 that did not have power.

“Because our building is closed and because many staff members are dealing with power outages at home, there will be no online assignments emailed to students, as some parents have inquired,” Millennium High School told families on Wednesday. “We recommend that students take the opportunity to do review work and read until school reopens.”

Millennium is housed in a Lower Manhattan office building whose basement was flooded. The building’s management company informed the school that no one would be able to enter until Monday, according to an email sent to parents on Wednesday from the school’s parent coordinator on behalf of its interim principal, who she said did not have power.

For high school seniors, the days off come at an opportune time: Most colleges have their first application deadline this week. (Many colleges have extended the deadline for students affected by Sandy.)

Adelya Baimukhamedova, a senior at the High School of Environmental Studies, said she had taken the time so far to catch up on assignments and put the finishing touches on college applications. No teachers assigned new homework since Friday, she said, but “they sent emails to reschedule exams. And I’m caught up with my homework now.”

Dyani Lebron, a fifth-grader at Manhattan’s P.S. 116, also said she had not heard from her teachers this week. She finished her weekend homework on Saturday under the assumption that this week would be a regular school week, so for now, she has been reading “The Mysterious Benedict Society.”

Lebron was walking on the Upper West Side Wednesday afternoon with Jocelyn Alvarez, a senior at Norman Thomas High School, which is in the process of phasing out and now has only an 11th and 12th grade this year. Alvarez said she is worried the storm could deepen the school’s difficulties.

“It’s already very disorganized,” Alvarez said. “Classes, schedules, students mixed in with the wrong grade. There are students who are behind and need to catch up, and this hurricane has made it worse.”

At more thriving schools, some teachers found innovative ways to trouble-shoot the situation. At Stuyvesant High School, which is located next to the West Side Highway and currently does not have power, longtime computer science teacher Mike Zamansky resumed classes for some of his students on Wednesday by online Google chat.

About 40 students watched the class live and others watched a recorded video afterwards, said Zamansky, who documented the experience on his blog.

“People keep talking about recorded lectures … but if anything, today’s experience just confirms to me that there’s nothing like an in-class teacher, particularly with a small group of students,” Zamansky wrote. “That said, I think this was a good experience and my students seem to agree. We spent part of an otherwise unproductive day in a productive manner and we’re planning on doing it again tomorrow.”

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.