moving right along

As DOE eases back into its regular plans, some raise objections

Chancellor Dennis Walcott takes questions after the Panel for Educational Policy meeting.

The city postponed some Panel for Educational Policy votes to next month after Hurricane Sandy threw the Department of Education’s public hearing schedule off track. But at the panel’s monthly meeting Thursday night, several members argued that the department was getting back to its regular business too quickly.

“We need to give people time to recover from this tragedy that we all have experienced in some way or another,” said Kelvin Diamond, the new Brooklyn borough president’s representative on the panel.

Diamond proposed a resolution to suspend all public hearings until 2013 for Brooklyn schools. Hearings about four proposals to co-locate or shrink schools in Brooklyn were rescheduled because they were supposed to take place during the week when all schools were closed because of the storm. Hearings about another 6 proposals for changes to Manhattan and Bronx schools are set for between now and Dec. 20, when the panel is to meet next. The hearings must happen before the panel can vote on the proposals.

Diamond said it would be unfair to hold hearings when many Brooklyn residents cannot focus on changes to how school buildings will be used next year.

“They’ve been hit hard. We just can’t have a machine run through them,” he said. “I have a [Community Education Council] member who is grieving, who attended a funeral and didn’t have time to respond to a letter” from the city.

Other panel members jumped to support the resolution, even suggesting that it be broadened in scope.

“It’s highly inappropriate” to hold hearings in the wake of hurricane, Patrick Sullivan, the Manhattan borough president’s representative, told officials.

“The administration is taking advantage of the fact that people can’t get to the hearings, can’t voice their opposition,” he added. “I would support the resolution not just for the specific Brooklyn proposals but for all the proposals that were moved to the December meeting.”

Hearings about six other proposals, for schools in Manhattan and the Bronx, were also rescheduled because of the storm.

But city officials said there is not enough time in the year to postpone hearings further, especially because state law requires the city to follow a rigid public notification timeline when proposing that schools be colocated, opened, or closed. The panel, which is dominated by mayoral appointees and has never sided against the city, voted down the resolution.

Chancellor Dennis Walcott said holding the hearings and taking up the proposals would help the department return to normalcy after several weeks when the department has been engaged in an all-hands-on-deck effort to figure out how to serve thousands of students whose schools were damaged.

“Part of the balancing act we’re trying to do is be sympathetic to what’s going on in New York City right now.” Walcott said. “While we’re balancing that part of life, we also have to balance the reality that life does go on as well. Part of that is to make sure we maintain the schedule that will allow us to conduct the business.”

He and other officials noted that the city would run the risk of being unable to fulfill its schools agenda for the year if it waiting any longer than planned to vote on the proposals, which would determine where new schools are sited within existing schools.

By the new year the city must also begin the process of holding hearings for schools it wants to close. “Early engagement” meetings for some elementary and middle schools at risk of closure had been scheduled for last week, and the department had also planned to name the high schools that might be closed during the week that schools were closed.

Debate over Diamond’s resolution did not end after the panel voted it down. The next item on the agenda, school budgets, had been deferred from October’s meeting because members of the education department’s budget office were ill at that time, officials said.

The explanation prompted Sullivan to renew his support for the postponement resolution.

“So we have hundreds of thousands of people across the city grieving and we cannot defer the people’s business … but one person is sick, and we have to defer the budget vote for the school system?” he asked.

“We’re going to stay on topic,” a budget secretary responded, prompting a raised-voice squabble between Sullivan and Walcott.

“Madame Chair, may I ask my next question?” Sullivan said in almost a shout, repeatedly as Walcott asked him to stop talking.

“You’re not asking a question about the budget, you’re giving your opinion in linking people who are grieving to someone who was sick,” Walcott said. “Patrick, you’re not going to bully people. … Stop being dramatic and ask a question.”

“Why can’t you postpone the other votes because people are grieving?” Sullivan responded, prompting some applause from the thin PEP audience.

As expected, the panel, which met in Queens this month, approved all department proposals and contracts up for a vote, including a new, one-year contract for Champion Learning, a tutoring service that lost its contract with the city earlier this year after it was found to have billed the city millions of dollars for services it might not have delivered.

Most of the attendees had little to say about the disruptions that Sandy has wrought on the city’s schools. Instead, parents turned out to lobby for more gifted programs in Queens, and to support the co-location of a new Achievement First charter school. The panel also approved a co-location proposal that would require P.S. 15 in the Bronx to cede three classrooms, to the dismay of school leaders who attended the meeting to protest the plan.

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.