stuck in the middle

Middle schools weakest in arts, too, city finds in annual report

The city's Annual Arts in Schools Report shows that fewer middle schools have reported offering each arts discipline every year since 2010, according to the city's Annual Arts in Schools Report.

One in five city eighth-graders graduated from middle school last year without completing the state’s basic requirements for arts education.

That data point is one of many contained in the city’s Annual Arts in Schools Report, which tallies arts instruction, staff, and spending.

At an event for arts advocates this morning to launch the report, Department of Education officials emphasized that schools’ time devoted to and money spent on arts instruction held steady or increased since last year. But they said there remain major areas where improvement is needed.

“We have to do more work with middle schools,” said Chancellor Dennis Walcott, echoing a sentiment he has expressed many times since launching an initiative aimed at boosting the city’s lagging middle schools last year. He said the department would convene a special committee to study arts in middle schools and make recommendations for changes.

Just 81 percent of last year’s eighth-graders graduated having fulfilled the state’s arts requirement of one credit in two different disciplines. In 2010, that figure was 85 percent. And the requirements are weaker than what the state originally set out: Walcott said the city had gotten a waiver from the state to allow dance and theater classes to count toward the graduation requirement, in addition to music and visual art.

“Lots of students will never have the opportunity to apply to a rigorous high school program” because they do not have adequate preparation in middle school, said Gregg Betheil, the department’s director of school programs and partnerships.

One possible recommendation of the committee, Walcott said, could be to introduce more screened arts programs at the middle school level.

Equity of access has arts advocates concerned, too. Eric Pryor, executive director of the Center for Arts Education, said in a statement that even though there are some positive signs in the arts report, “the opportunity gap that exists in city public schools has barely budged, leaving far too many students without access to quality instruction in the arts.”

The issue persists in high school. “We are seeing a decrease in the ability of schools to offer multiple arts disciplines,” said Paul King, director of the Department of Education’s arts office.

The Center for Arts Education joined other arts advocates this fall in calling on the city to expand its accountability system to include arts instruction. Only then, the groups said in a recent letter, will schools feel compelled to offer quality arts programming to all students.

King said today that he thought academics have edged out the arts at some middle schools. “I think middle schools are under incredible pressure” to post academic improvements, he said. “It’s an issue of scheduling and prioritization.”

The solution, King said, was to “shape school leaders’ thinking” so they understand that arts instruction can boost student performance in other subjects, by engaging students and providing a different avenue for literacy work.

A major obstacle to making changes in middle schools or elsewhere is the city’s budget situation. According to the report, 62 percent of principals citywide reported to the department last year that they faced serious challenges in budgeting for arts education. And even though schools slightly increased their spending on the arts, they actually shed teachers.

In the tough budget climate, schools have turned increasingly to outside organizations to provide arts programming, King said, with the number of arts organizations working in city schools up by 25 percent since the first round of budget cuts in 2008. While much of the instruction provided by external partners is strong, he said, the department cannot say which organizations do the best job.

“It’s something we don’t have the capacity to effectively monitor,” King said, adding that developing standards for assessing whether students have learned in their arts classes is a project the department has only just started to tackle in an initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Education.

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.