voting with their feet

City lifts short-lived ban on letting charters open on Election Day

A screenshot from the website of Future Leaders Institute Charter School shows that the school had planned to hold classes tomorrow even though Department of Education schools are closed. It no longer has permission to remain open, following two back-to-back policy changes by the city.

Reversing a decision made late last week, the Department of Education will provide school safety agents and other supports to dozens of charter schools that want to hold class on Tuesday.

But the reversal came too late for some schools that had already canceled classes.

On Friday, Chancellor Dennis Walcott decreed that no school housed in public space could remain open on Election Day because school safety agents were needed to fill in for other city workers pulled away to help with Hurricane Sandy relief.

“For all schools in DOE space, regardless if you have applied/have a permit, no students may be in the building and no classes may be held on Election Day,” Sonia Park, head of the department’s Charter Schools Office, told school leaders on Friday afternoon. “Because of the storm, significant resources across the City will continued to be deployed for recovery efforts and therefore can not be available for schools in DOE buildings.”

The decision brought charter schools housed in district buildings into line with the rest of the city’s schools, which were already scheduled to have the day off so that 700 schools could serve as polling sites.

But it also snatched away a key element of the privately managed schools’ autonomy: the right to set their own calendars. Dozens of charter schools were planning to hold classes to avoid a midweek interruption — particularly after Sandy caused them to miss five days of classes.

(Some city charter schools housed in private space had not planned to have classes on Election Day but chose to use it as a storm makeup day.)

Some charter school leaders pushed back against the decision, asking the department to reconsider, department officials said.

This afternoon, Miriam Sondheimer, who works in the department’s Office of Portfolio Planning, told charter school leaders that the department had reversed itself again.

“The determination has been made that charter schools can open tomorrow for students,” Sondheimer wrote in an email, which GothamSchools obtained. “We have confirmation that a safety agent will be in at the buildings in the attached list. There will be no transportation services, but there will be food services available.”

The list contained the names of 50 schools with permission to remain open on Tuesday. But Sondheimer also exhorted school leaders to let the department know by 3 p.m. if they had decided to cancel classes “so that we can appropriately deploy our limited resources.”

By the end of the day, the number of charter schools that will remain open in public space on Tuesday had fallen by nearly half, to 32. Among the schools that will be open for business are all 14 schools in the Success Academy Charter Schools network, the six schools in the Achievement First network, and the three schools operated by Democracy Prep, which has a day of activities planned to tie in with the election.

A handful of independent charter schools housed in public space have opted to open on Tuesday, as well. One school that stayed on the list was Manhattan Charter School, which operates out of a Lower East Side building that lost power after Sandy for nearly a week. On its website, the school has posted its academic calendar: “Election Day – School is OPEN.”

Of the schools that fell off the list by relinquishing their right to remain open, fully half are members of the Uncommon Schools network.

“We were planning to be open, but DOE told us last week that we couldn’t be,” said Barbara Martinez, a network spokeswoman. “At this point, it’s too late to change the plan.”

The rest of the schools are independent charter schools scattered across the city. Dirk Tillotson, executive director of Fahari Academy Charter School, said the school simply couldn’t muster the resources to bring students back after telling them to stay home.

“We put in a lot of staff time and energy to translate messages, send out text messages, put out phone calls, and follow up when we were unable to get through,” Tillotson said. “It took a lot of energy to make that call and be sure that nobody would show up on Tuesday.”

He added, “At the same time we had a very interesting program scheduled for that day, so it was disappointing. But at the same time, I’m sure there’s a lot of competing demands for the building and they’re doing their best.”

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.