Making the grade

For first time in years, high schools net more A's and fewer F's

For the first time in years, more New York City high schools are making the grade, at least according to one of the Department of Education’s assessments.

After four years during which the city doled out fewer and fewer top letter grades to high schools on annual progress reports, the department announced today that more high schools received A’s and B’s — and fewer had received failing grades.

In 2008, the percentage of high schools that received top letter grades topped out at 83 percent. In subsequent years, as the city sought to close many of its large comprehensive high schools and replace them with smaller ones, that rate has fallen — to 75 percent in 2009, 70 percent in 2010, and 65 percent in 2011.

This year, the rate of top-graded schools bounced back up to 72 percent. The proportion of schools that received failing grades fell from 12 percent to 7 percent.

The reversal comes at a time when city and state officials have said that high schools are, by and large, not preparing students for college. In fact, the city even added new data points to the progress reports designed to reward schools that produce college-ready graduates, and penalize those that do not.

The boost in high schools’ city grades also comes at a time when more middle and elementary schools got grades so low that they face closure.

Schools that receive an F, D, or three consecutive C’s or worse can be closed, according to the city’s rules. Earlier this year, the city announced that 217 elementary and middle schools fell into that category, an 80 percent increase over last year. The city is targeting 36 of those schools for possible closure, nearly twice as many as it did in 2011.

Mayor Bloomberg has said that closing failing middle schools and replacing them with new schools would be a major initiative of the last year of his mayoral term.

But the number of high schools that the department might target for closure this years decreased. Sixty high schools met the closure standards, and the department is considering closing 24 of them.

Progress reports have been released annually since 2007 as a way to measure how schools are performing. The city also uses the reports to justify decisions about school closures. The reports factor in more than two dozen data points, including graduation rates, scores on state Regents exams, course completion, attendance, and results from surveys of parents, students, and teachers.

Principals and education officials said the reason so many high schools got top scores for the first time in years was the city’s heightened emphasis on preparing students for college. New college-readiness metrics accounted for 10 percent of each school’s overall score.

“Our high schools are rising to the challenge of more rigorous standards and diploma requirements,” Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky said in a statement.

“It really highlighted some of our deficiencies,” Darryl White, principal of Bronx Collegiate Academy, said of the new metrics. Two percent of White’s students from the Class of 2011 were labeled “college ready,” according to the city’s standards, and the school received a B last year. So this fall,White said he introduced Advanced Placement courses to the school for the first time. This year Bronx Collegiate received an A.

“What I do appreciate is that it informs your of what your focus should be in the next year,” White said about the city’s strategy for grading schools.

In a press release, the department touted this year’s results as “generally stable.” Ninety-five percent of schools either maintained the same grade or changed by one grade from 2011.

Still, some schools saw a more precipitous decline.

Three schools fell from a C to a F, including Choir Academy of Harlem. Earlier this year, the Choir Academy’s middle school also tumbled significantly — from a B to a F. The school had been under investigation for cheating fraud and its former principal was abruptly fired in the middle of the last school year. The two other schools that saw similar declines were Bronx Regional High School and the Academy for Social Action.

Two high schools improved by three letter grades, from an F to a B: Gotham Professional Arts Academy and EBC High School for Public Service in Bushwick.

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.