day one

Even as some buses roll, families struggle on strike's first day

Kayley, a student at Central Park East 2 (with head turned), traveled to school with his mother today. He took a city bus instead of a yellow bus because of a strike by school bus drivers.

Families across the city contended with unfamiliar transportation routes, incomplete information, and bad weather to get their children to school this morning, the first during a strike called by the bus drivers union.

Most bus drivers did not report to work today to protest the city’s decision not to extend seniority protections to current drivers when opening bids for new contracts with bus companies. Their union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181, also picketed outside some bus depots, in some cases briefly impeding non-union bus companies from operating, and released a television ad that paints new bus drivers as dangerous.

But the Department of Education said 40 percent of buses actually did roll today, including 100 percent of routes serving children in prekindergarten. Those bus drivers work under contracts negotiated last year.

Just 12 percent of routes for students in general education were running today, while 60 percent of routes serving students with special needs were disrupted.

Preliminary data showed strong attendance citywide, Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced at a city press conference where he praised parents for “being really focused on getting their kids to school.” But he said attendance at District 75 schools, which serve the city’s most disabled students, was down by about a quarter today.

Just over half of students made it to P811 in Manhattan, down significantly from the 90 percent average daily attendance rate, according to teachers there. Teachers at a Staten Island school, P721, reported similar figures.

A security guard who works in the housing project near the New York Center for Autism Charter School in Manhattan said he had not seen as many kids as usual arriving at the school this morning.

One mother, Lucia, said she made the commute by taxi from Tribeca — at great personal expense. Her son’s autism makes him unable to take public transportation. Even though the the city will reimburse the $31 cab fare each way, she will still lose four hours a day shepherding her son to school, going to work, picking him up, and returning home.

“The strike delays my workday by two hours. I have to transport him morning and afternoon,” she said. “So that’s four hours of unproductive time for me in terms of work. I only have four hours there, and what can I do in four hours?”

(The city’s reimbursement plan requires parents to front the costs of transportation by car for a week. “But what if parents don’t have any money?” asked Crystal, a teacher at an early learning center. “You’ll reimburse them, but who’s going to give them the money to get there?”)

Students arrive at the New York Center for Autism Charter School this morning. Many students who attend the school take buses whose drivers started a strike today.

Another mother at the school, who identified herself only as Grace, said she spent an hour and a half in traffic this morning with her son. “It’s terrible, and I’m going to be late to work,” she said.

At Central Park East 2, an unzoned school where many students take the bus, a mother named Carla said her flexible schedule meant bringing her children was not a problem today. But, she said, “it’s harder for [other] parents, especially the parents who work 9 to 5. … It’s a bad day out, too.”

Other students stayed home. Barbara, who works at P.S. 306 in East New York and asked that only her first name be used, said her daughter stayed home today. Tomorrow, she said, her daughter would be late to P368, a school for students with disabilities in Cobble Hill. “I have to get her to school when I get off at 9:30,” she said.

And dropping two of his siblings off at P.S. 306 before getting on the city bus to Urban Action Academy, Ricardo Medina said his other younger brother stayed home because his special education school was too far away.

“They’re really mad but I guess there’s nothing they can do if the bus people are going on strike,” Medina said about his parents.

The Department of Education has created a search tool for families to find out whether their school’s buses are running as usual. But some families evidently did not find out in time that their children’s buses would not be disrupted by the strike.

At P.S. 306, Principal Lawrence Burroughs said the school was operating normally because most students live nearby. But of the four buses that normally serve the school, just one showed up today, and it was empty, according to a school safety officer.

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.