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UFT tours get mayoral hopefuls weighing "community schools"

All four of the likely Democratic candidates for mayor, seen here with Republican Tom Allon during an education policy discussion in November, have traveled to Cincinnati with the United Federation of Teachers to view "community schools."

Among the thousand visitors from across the country who streamed through Cincinnati’s Oyler School in the last year were all four of New York City’s likely Democratic candidates for mayor.

They made the trip at the invitation of UFT President Michael Mulgrew, who has been touting Oyler as the epitome of a school model that he hopes New York City’s next mayor will promote.

The trips have been held up as evidence that the candidates are all trying to win the union’s endorsement. But just as significant as why the candidates made the commute is what they saw when they got there.

Cincinnati has turned all of its more than 50 district schools into “community schools” that rely on partnerships with businesses and non-profits to provide an array of services. The school buildings stay open until late into the night and on the weekends, providing early childhood centers, adult education, access to gyms, translation services, tutoring, and food banks to the general public. Local hospitals embed nurses in the schools full-time to provide free health, dental, and vision services.

As one of the first schools in Cincinnati to make the evolution, a decade ago, Oyler is seen as an anchor for the model.

“It’s an amazing thing to walk into a school and to see so many different services, seamlessly aligned,” Mulgrew said of his visits to Oyler in May, when he announced that the union would fund a six-school pilot community schools program in New York City.

Drawing on their campaign funds, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and former comptroller Bill Thompson joined UFT officials at the school last spring. Comptroller John Liu and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn made the trip with the union in October, paying their way with money from their public offices. (Principal Craig Hockenberry, who has been at the school for 14 years, said Quinn’s visit stood out among the 60 he hosted this year because she brought police protection.)

The union’s efforts to promote what has happened in Cincinnati are starting to pay off. In his State of the City speech in December, Comptroller John Liu proposed turning each of the city’s school buildings into a community center after school hours.

“Earlier this year, along with Speaker Quinn, and many of our city’s teachers, I visited the school system in Cincinnati,” he said. “I was very impressed by what I saw there.”

Other candidates have also expressed support for the idea. Even before visiting, Quinn mentioned Cincinnati in her own State of the City address last February. Then, joining city and union officials to kick off the six-school pilot in June, she said, “Look, we’re in New York, and we hate to say that anyone else has a [better] model than we do, but occasionally we just have to swallow our pride and admit that there are some other places in the world that come up with good, interesting, and effective models of how to do this.”

And Thompson told GothamSchools that he agreed to visit because he supports having “wraparound services” at schools. “To see it in practice, I thought it was great,” he said. “It’s making the community school more attractive again.”

The four candidates are competing for the UFT’s endorsement — and the financial support that would accompany it. But backing Cincinnati’s model could be attractive for other reasons. Since Cincinnati’s schools were transformed into community hubs, the city’s high school graduation rate increased from 51 to 82 percent. Officials in that district have said the conversion didn’t cost much, because the model calls for services to be coordinated, not created. And, in an extra bonus for New York City mayoral candidates, creating community schools is seen as easier with a strong executive in charge.

“I see this as the promise of mayoral control — harnessing the power of city agencies,” said Mulgrew’s predecessor at the UFT, Randi Weingarten, in 2009. Weingarten launched a sustained push for community schools when she was elected president of the American Federation of Teachers, a national union, in 2008.

The UFT has continued to press the issue. An article praising Oyler Elementary in the union’s newspaper in May described “growing frustration that New York City has not taken more advantage of the potential to concentrate services at schools and strengthen community ties.”

A union official who had already visited Oyler multiple times, Vice President Karen Alford, told the newspaper, “We’re doing a lot of what they’re doing — clinics, tutoring — but each is a separate program.”

When the law granting mayoral control of city schools was last up for reauthorization, in 2009, the union asked lawmakers to give parents more control over the way schools are run. If the city’s next mayor uses his or her authority over the city’s schools to execute the UFT’s visit, the union could be less likely to push for changes to the school governance law.

Although it joined the union’s community schools pilot after Mulgrew told union members that he would move forward with or without the city’s help, Bloomberg’s Department of Education has shown less interest in Oyler. Chancellor Dennis Walcott has met with Cincinnati officials at UFT headquarters, but he has so far declined an invitation from the union to accompany Mulgrew on one of his visits to the city, a union official said.

State Education Commissioner John King, on the other hand, did make the pilgrimage with the union.

King’s participation could prove crucial. With an eye on 2014, UFT officials have been working to line up support for community schools from more than just mayoral candidates. Testifying before Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Education Reform Commission in October, Mulgrew called on state government to help push the model forward, something that he said Ohio did not do for Cincinnati and would be necessary for the model to work at an even larger scale.

“New York is not Cincinnati. Fifty-two schools aren’t directly comparable to 1,700. We’re not blind to the difficulties,” Mulgrew said. But, he went on, “Our mind is fixed on meeting the needs. Cincinnati represents what’s possible when we park egos and the bureaucracy at the curb.”

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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.