young democrats

Students watch inauguration, put themselves in Obama's shoes

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Democracy Prep students and their families watch President Obama's inaugural address.

An inauguration event at the Harlem Armory on Monday drew students too young to remember any president but Barack Obama — and others who said his presidency changed the way they see their own futures.

While most schools across the city were closed for the Martin Luther King Day, the Democracy Prep charter network convened students, parents, teachers, staff, and community members to watch Obama’s inauguration on the big screen.

Leesandra Moore brought her four daughters to the inauguration event. Her oldest is in eighth grade at Democracy Prep, and her three younger daughters were born during Obama’s first term.

Referring to her three-year-old, Moore said, “I wanted her to experience it so she can say that she was there. She doesn’t understand race … but she will grow up in a world that does talk about race. Right now it just seems to her like, all these people are making a big fuss, what are they making a fuss over?”

Megan Kenslea, a second-grade teacher, said her students don’t remember not having a black president. But she said they might not recognize inequalities that still exist.

A five-year-old documents Obama’s swearing-in.

“Listening to [Obama] talk about how every child has the same opportunities — especially as a teacher, I see that not all kids have the same opportunities,” she said. “It depends on the education they receive.”

Surveying the talkative crowd, Democracy Prep Chief of Staff Katie Duffy said “We hope our kids see the community that supports them. We also wanted to celebrate that.”

The event wasn’t all about watching events taking place in Washington, D.C. Students were also called to take action at home. Democracy Prep encouraged students to send pre-printed postcards to policymakers with their recommendations for how to improve schools, then provided local volunteer opportunities during the afternoon.

Tiffany Frith, left, said Obama's presidency had caused her to reassess her own aspirations.

“One is to Ms. Obama, another to the president, and another to Governor Cuomo,” Democracy Prep middle schooler Dave Cassell said as he flipped through the postcards. “The point of these is to show what we think about the education values we have today. We write about how we feel about these issues.”

Postcard prompts included: “If I were president I would improve school safety by…” “If I were governor I would improve New York’s schools by…” “If I were First Lady I would help kids get healthy by…”

Dave Cassell and Emerald O’Brien discuss what policy recommendations to make on a postcard to the president.

Another postcard, addressed to City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and focused on charter schools, began, “We were disappointed to hear you say that you didn’t want to grow the number of public charter schools if you were elected mayor.” Quinn made the statement during first speech on education policy last week.

Tiffany Frith, a senior at Democracy Prep’s high school, said Obama’s election in 2008 prompted her to think more seriously about her role in public policy.

“Obama is a role model for me,” she said. “Past presidents weren’t African-American, and a lot of people thought there wouldn’t be one. Now there is, and that shows me that if I want to be president, I can be the first female president and an African-American president.”

Democracy Prep has pushed students to participate in politics since the network launched its first school in 2006. For Obama’s first inauguration in 2009, which fell on a school day, the network hosted an event attended by 34 other schools. More recently, in the lead-up to the 2012 election, the network dispatched students to encourage Harlem residents to vote.

Elvira Pocorni, who used to attend Democracy Prep, watched Obama’s speech with her brother Edward.

Elvira Pocorni got a call from Democracy Prep on Friday informing her of the event. Her grandmother, Minerva Dakriet, insisted that Elvira and her siblings attend, even though they no longer live in the city.

“I didn’t think we would see a black president in this lifetime, and we saw it twice,” Dakriet said. Turning to watch her grandchildren view Obama’s speech, Minerva noted how much work they have ahead of them.

“Obama’s paving the way for them, but they’ve got to study,” she said. “You can have a black president, but if you don’t do anything you will not make it.”

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.