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Graphics students are apprehensive on first day back to school

Students walk to the High School of Graphic Communication Arts Wednesday morning.

Students from the High School of Graphic Communication Arts and several small high schools returned to their Hell’s Kitchen building for the first time since Hurricane Sandy with trepidation.

They had heard on the local news and read on Facebook that their school building was in disarray after serving as a shelter for more than 1,000 people displaced by the hurricane which destroyed homes and flooded many parts of the city. Many received emails from their principals and teachers reassuring them that the schools would be ready for them to return to normal, but some weren’t convinced their classes were ready to pick up where they left off on Friday, Oct. 26, the last time the schools’ held classes.

“Yeah, I’m worried. It’s pretty disgusting,” said Yaina Reyes, a junior at Graphics, referring to conditions she observed in a news report about the school’s hurricane shelter earlier this week.

City officials originally planned to reopen Graphics to students Monday, while keeping its hundreds of shelter residents in place, even as Principal Brendan Lyons petitioned the department to send his students somewhere else on Monday, citing the turmoil that sharing the space might cause.

“If it’s not sanitary, it will be sanitary,” Chancellor Dennis Walcott told reporters at the time. But as reports of the school’s disarray trickled in, officials changed their plans. Instead of opening it to students on Monday, the city began shutting the Graphics shelter down earlier this week and relocating evacuees who had been staying there. Wednesday marks the school’s first day back in operation.

Of the seven other school buildings that have served as shelters, four others are opening today with small numbers of evacuees still living inside. Three others are not yet ready for students to return, but city officials said on Tuesday they hoped that would change by Thursday.

As Reyes rounded the corner of 49th Street and 9th Avenue en route to the entrance, she added that the large Career and Technical Education high school’s problems stretch far beyond the challenges of past week, and could get worse now that students are back. School leaders came under fire from students and staff last month when scheduling problems dominated the first weeks of school.

“Graphics is such a mess anyway. People are getting more reckless because of the principal, and this hurricane messed up the whole flow even more.”

Sophomore Ladre Grier said she was also more worried about resuming classes than about sanitation in the building. “I’m just glad they had the place to stay in,” she said. Grier said she was able to catch up on homework in all of her classes assigned before the hurricane hit, but did not receive any emails from teachers instructing her on how to prepare for the day’s lessons.

Another Graphics senior said he had been able to do new classwork in the past week, but only because he is enrolled in an online credit recovery class.

Francyne Villavicencio, a senior, said she did not receive updates from her teachers during the hurricane either, and found that discouraging. “Some of us are seniors and this is the year we need to be up on everything,” she said.

Despite the knowledge that she still had courses and Regents exams to pass before graduation this year, Villavicencio said she was “not looking forward” to returning to school today because of lingering concerns about how the school held up while serving as a shelter. But her friend Ryan Santos, a junior at the Business of Sports High School, another school in the building, told her he received a reassuring email from administrators yesterday.

“They said they were cleaning up the school, making it more clean than it was already,” he said.

A Graphics administrator told GothamSchools in a message that the school was “a lot cleaner,” this morning than it was over the past week. But the staffer added that it would take yet more time for the school to return to normal.

“I think it will take a while,” the staffer wrote. But, “I know that many students are looking forward to going back to school because it’s a stable place for most of them.”

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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.