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At one high school, Black History Month looks to the present

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At East Brooklyn Community High School, as at many city schools, Black History Month brought an assembly to celebrate the many achievements of black Americans.

But the small transfer high school in Brownsville also took a less traditional approach to the month. It convened students to watch and discuss a documentary about the United States government’s war on drugs, which has landed millions of black Americans in prison.

“A lot of schools are afraid to do something political for Black History Month,” said science teacher Amy Fitch. “This is a political film, but I think our students can handle it. Politics are part of life, and our students are affected by politics all the time.”

The film, “The House I Live In,” looks at the drug war from the perspective of inmates, law enforcement officers, journalists, professors, and members of local communities, with particular emphasis on the drug war’s disproportionate effect on black Americans. It won the Grand Jury documentary prize at the Sundance Film Festival last month.

Several East Brooklyn Community High students saw the film last semester as part of their “Talking About Race” elective course and worked with their teacher, Deborah Schaeffer, to organize a screening for the whole school. It was the first time the three-year-old school had set aside an afternoon for all 200 students to see and discuss a film together.

“When I first saw the film, it showed me things I didn’t know,” said Mike Muir, one of Schaeffer’s students. “There are scenes that are going to get attention. Kids are going to take something away from it.”

Fifteen minutes after the school day ended last Monday, several students and teachers remained deep in conversation about what they had seen — and whether it was worth seeing in school.

One senior said she was not sure there was a point in showing the film. “It’s just the fact that — what is this going to change?” Ranitta said. “You keep showing what we’re doing wrong, showing us what black people did. It’s Black History Month. I want to hear the good that we did.”

But her view appeared to be in the minority. “There are real issues that need to be talked about,” Muir countered.

“You’re always talking about how [school] is not relevant to my life. This … relates to our lives,” said Jenna, also a senior.

“I want to hear something that connects to my life” when Black History Month rolls around, she added. “This does, even if you’ve never done drugs, even if you’ve never been locked up. This is why the police are in my hood, why my hood looks the way it does, why we don’t have healthy food.”

“Instead of sending us to jail, they should give us rehab so we can do something,” said another student, Isaiah, reflecting on a law enforcement official in the film who said that when funding gets tight, rehabilitation programs are always the first to go.

“We’re not saying drugs are right,” Jenna said. “But if you’re not helping us to rehabilitate ourselves, you’re not teaching us to live in society. … That’s not changing anything, that’s not forcing anything to change.

English teacher Tessa Corcoran-Sayers said the discussion in her group centered on a statistic cited in the film: Children of incarcerated parents are more likely to end up in jail themselves.

“Students who have family members in jail wanted to talk about what that meant and who was saying it,” Corcoran-Sayers said. They were wondering, she said, “If my dad’s incarcerated, what does that mean for me?”

The real measure of the activity’s success, Muir said, is whether the conversations “get out of this school.”

“Who’s going to go home and give it to someone else, tell their mom what they learned, go over and tell their friends what they learned?” he wondered aloud.

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.