Back to school

As schools stabilize, some students and supplies still missing

Council members Christine Quinn and Domenic Recchia hand out school supplies to students at I.S. 281 in Bensonhurst (Credit: William Alatriste)

If today’s attendance figures were a test of how well the city’s schools are rebounding from Hurricane Sandy, as Chancellor Dennis Walcott said they would be last week, then the city scored a 91 percent overall.

Even as 34 city schools remain unmoored from their damaged buildings, thousands more students showed up for classes today for the first time since the schools closed in October. At the same time, charitable efforts are shifting their focus toward replenishing those schools with basic supplies—most recently through a million dollar campaign, launched today, to supply students with backpacks and other supplies.

The city’s overall attendance rate is climbing, but schools in the areas that the hurricane hit the hardest are still struggling to fill their rosters. Of the fifteen schools that returned to their original buildings today, after relocating a week ago, Department of Education officials said about 77 percent showed up on average. And among the 37 relocated schools, two-thirds of students showed up—double the percentage from last week.

At Rockaway Collegiate High School, which relocated to Queens Metropolitan High School, just under half the student body came to school. At Beach Channel High School, which relocated to Franklin K. Lane High School in Jamaica, Queens, only 41 percent of students showed up.  And at P.S. 253, the attendance rate was 29.4 percent today, it’s last day at a relocated site. Officials announced this afternoon that it and two other schools—Mark Twain I.S. 239 and P.S. 279 Herman Schreiber—would be returning to their buildings starting tomorrow thanks to new repairs.

Yesterday city officials said all but six schools will likely return to their buildings by the end of November. The rest will have to wait until at least January, 2013. To stick to that timeline, the city will funnel $200 million in capital funds into school repairs.

Last week, Chancellor Dennis Walcott said city officials were hopeful that attendance would rise again in the displaced schools after taking Veterans Day off. Today officials said the attendance rates were a big step in the right direction, but still not sufficiently high.

“We think it is positive that attendance rates more than doubled in relocated schools as well as in schools returning to their original buildings,” Department spokeswoman Erin Hughes, said. “We think it’s important for all students to be back in the classroom though so we are looking into a number of ways that we can reach out to parents and students who may not be attending school and work on getting them back into the classroom.”

Another aspect of the school system is returning to normal this evening, city officials said: the city is closing the last of its school building shelters. Dozens of city schools served as shelters during the hurricane, and two remained open even after classes resumed last week.

As the school system continues to recover, its smaller-scale needs are beginning to receive heightened attention.

A number of charitable efforts are steering funds toward replacing basic school supplies that students and teachers might have lost during the storm. Last week, we reported that DonorsChoose had created a web page specifically dedicated to paying for projects from schools affected by the storm. So far it has raised $87,627 from 621 individual donors.

And today, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and the United Federation of Teachers jointly announced the creation of a new $1.5 million fund, made up mostly of corporate donations, that would specifically go toward buying and distributing 30,000 backpacks filled with school supplies and books to students in displaced schools.

The department has also helped the relocated schools replenish supplies.  Last week it raised the spending cap by $1,000 for 47 schools that were originally displaced. The schools used the money to pay for printing and buy pens, staplers, dry erase boards, markers, supplies that were either lost or left behind in their home schools.

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.