exchange students

Inverting conventional wisdom, Korean leader lauds city school

Democracy Prep Charter High School students who recently took an exchange trip to South Korea, met with South Korean Prime Minister Kim Hwang-Sik during his visit to the school.

Last month, students from Democracy Prep Charter High School were honored guests at Seondeok High School and Dong Seong Middle School in South Korea. Today, they honored a guest of their own: Kim Hwang-Sik, South Korea’s prime minister.

Kim met with school leaders; spoke with the students; and hobnobbed with Congressman Charles Rangel, who supported the exchange trip, during Kim’s brief stop at the school this afternoon. He was in New York City to visit the United Nations as part of a tour of North America.

All students at Democracy Prep High School study Korean, and last month, three dozen of them traveled to South Korea to see the country up close. They visited the schools, toured Buddhist temples, and stayed in the homes of South Korean families.

One student told Kim that the trip had brought the Korean culture she had studied at school to life for her. “Now I want to travel more and … see things with my own true eyes,” she said.

Democracy Prep Superintendent Seth Andrew told Kim that American education leaders often point to South Korea and Finland as two countries whose students far outpace students in the United States. Korea, he said, is the more instructive example of educational excellence because of its economic history.

“I think we have more to learn from Korea because our students have to go from poverty to prosperity” as Korea did, Andrew said. “In Finland, they have always had prosperity.”

But Kim said Korea could also learn a lot from some of the traits that Democracy Prep aims to instill in its students.

“The values of discipline, responsibility, enthusiasm, accountability, and maturity,” he said, listing the qualities in English before switching back to Korean — “I believe these are the values that we need to import to Korea and take back to the education system in Korea.”

While attainment and academic skills are high in South Korea, even the country’s own leaders say that the education system promotes rote learning at the cost of creativity and critical thinking. Schools have long focused on preparing students for a single high-stakes test, the national university entrance exam, and the pursuit of high scores led South Koreans to spend 2 percent of the country’s GDP on private tutoring in 2010, according to a Time Magazine report. Now, reforms are underway to diversify the national curriculum and allow universities to consider more than just test scores when selecting students.

At Democracy Prep today, Andrew gave Kim a baseball cap in the school’s trademark yellow, and students presented him with a number of other gifts. The delegation from South Korea delivered gifts of its own: Samsung printers for each of the school’s two Korean teachers.

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.