on the road again

Return of yellow school buses brings relief and new challenges

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Assistant teacher Miguelina Valeria takes attendance as students exit the bus at Manhattan’s P721 Wednesday.

Five weeks ago, what happened at P721 in Manhattan on Wednesday would not have seemed extraordinary: Yellow buses pulled up by the main entrance and assistant teacher Miguelina Valerio took attendance and greeted students as they headed into school.

But after a bus drivers’ strike that lasted over a month, the yellow buses marked the end of nightmarish commutes for many parents and, for many students with special needs, a long-awaited return to class.

P721 is a District 75 school that provides occupational training to high school students. During the strike, Valerio said, only 70 or 80 students came to school each day out of a student body of 200. “More than half the students were missing,” she said. “Little by little they’re coming back.”

Citywide, 88.5 percent of students made it to school on Wednesday, fewer than usual on a day that was supposed to be the middle of a vacation until Hurricane Sandy struck and required makeup days. But in District 75 schools, 82.6 percent of students attended school — almost the same number as who attended on a typical day before the strike.

Not all of the students who are entitled to ride yellow buses took them, though. Pointing to the roster where she marked how many students had gotten off the most recent bus, Valerio said only 12 of the 20 students on that bus had come to school. “Maybe they don’t know that the strike is over,” she said.

For those who did get the news, readjusting to routines that had been normal was a new challenge. After her husband heard on the news Saturday that the strike was over, Edith Rodriguez said she immediately started preparing her first-grader, Leilany, to start riding the school bus again.

For the first three weeks of the strike, Rodriguez kept Leilany home rather than spending six to eight hours a day hours shuttling her to and from school. Then, in response to pressure from advocates, the Department of Education agreed to pay cab fare for the four daily trips it took Rodriguez to accompany her daughter to and from school.

The end of the strike means another transition. “I was telling her starting Saturday, then again on Sunday,” Rodriguez said on Wednesday. “Last night I reminded her that the taxi wouldn’t come for us, that she had to go in the bus like always. It’s hard for her.”

Now Rodriguez, who works at a bakery, can return to her usual routine. Rather than rushing home to meet a cab at 2 p.m. and pick up her daughter, she has until Leilany’s bus arrives at 4:30 p.m. to finish work and run errands. “Today I am more calm and relaxed,” she said. “The strike days were very rushed.”

Parents across the city are finally able to return to their normal work schedules. “It was taking me five to six hours to go get my son, come back home, then go get him and bring him home,” said Shanna Yarbrough, whose second-grader attends a District 75 school in Sheepshead Bay. “Now I have all of those hours back.”

Still, the end of the strike brings a new set of challenges. Thousands of students, many with special needs, have been out of school for the duration of the strike. Now that the buses are running, those students are able to get to school, where they face transitions parents and special education advocates said many students are likely to find difficult.

“It’s like learning a new routine all over again … a month is a long time for a child. There will be a certain degree of starting over for some of the children,” said Maggie Moroff, special education policy coordinator at Advocates for Children.

Students who missed a month of classes and special services such as speech and occupational therapy will be “playing a serious game of catch-up,” Moroff said.

Kendra, a mother who is PTA president of a District 75 school and who did not want her last name published, managed to bring her son to school every day, where he received services for his special needs. But, she said that if other families’ experiences are anything like what she goes through during and after summer vacation, they are in for a rough adjustment.

When students with special needs are out of school for long periods, she said, “things start to fall apart for them. They start to become aggressive or agitated. They need their routine.”

There’s another way that the end of the bus strike is like starting the school year over, Yarbrough said. She said early in the year, students with special needs are often assigned bus routes that don’t meet their special needs or consistently drop them off at school late.

“This January and February is only a slightly larger version of the stress families go through every September,” Yarbrough said. “So we are not new to this kind of stress level from the Office of Pupil Transportation, and I will see it again in eight months.”

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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.