on the up and up

Latest data from city show a continued increase in class sizes

Across the city, classes this year are larger, on average, than they were last year, according to data the Department of Education released today.

The new data, released this afternoon to meet an annual reporting deadline set by the City Council, show that class sizes have increased citywide for the sixth year in a row, with the largest increases coming in high schools.

Overall, class sizes jumped by an average of 1.6 percent this year. Classes in elementary schools now average 24.5 students; middle schools average 27.3 students per class; and high schools have 26.9 students on average in each class.

In September, a tally by the teachers union found that 670 schools — more than ever — had classes over their contractual size limits, which are higher than the citywide class size averages.

“Every parent and every teacher knows how critical it is that classes are small enough that each child can get individual attention,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said in a statement responding to the new data. “But Mayor Bloomberg disagrees.”

Bloomberg began his tenure as mayor pledging to reduce class size, but now he says he doesn’t see class size as a pressing issue and would opt for better teachers over more teachers. A year ago, he said during a speech in Massachusetts that if he had his druthers, he would fire half of the city’s teachers and use the other half to lead larger classes. “Double class size with a better teacher is a good deal for the students,” Bloomberg said.

The changes reported today were, unsurprisingly, far less dramatic, with classes growing by .4 students on average.

Still, classes in kindergarten through third grade, where research has most clearly shown that smaller classes are better for student achievement, are now only slightly smaller than they were in the 1998-1999 school year, when they had 24.9 students on average. Last year, classes in those grades averaged 23.9 students; this year, that figure was 24.5.

Classes grew by the biggest margin this year in high schools, where classes grew by .6 students on average, from 26.3 to 26.9 students. The department’s PowerPoint presentation about the data suggested that a policy change requiring all high school seniors to take a full schedule of classes had fueled the increase.

In addition to the presentation, the department published detailed spreadsheets showing class sizes in each school and across different kinds of classes, such as type of special education class or high school subject.

The report released today is the first of two about class size the department is required to put out each school year. The department proposed eliminating the first report and completing only one in February instead, a move that advocates of smaller class sizes charged would produced artificially low class sizes. A city advisory board has recommended keeping both reports.

This year’s report was based on official enrollment data on Oct. 26, the last day of school before Hurricane Sandy hit the city. Some storm-affected schools have seen their enrollments change dramatically since then.

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.