school closing season

Closure plan debated at school where parents called for change

CAP (Photo: Luke Hammill)
Edna Wilson and her granddaughter Gianee, a P.S. 64 student, protested the school’s poor quality before its closure hearing. (Photo: Luke Hammill)

Reprising a march they held last fall, parents and community leaders stood outside P.S. 64 Pura Belpre with signs and mock sirens and declared a “state of emergency” in District 9 Thursday evening just before a public hearing about whether the South Bronx school should be phased out.

Local residents agreed on two things: P.S. 64 remains a failing school, and they are also frustrated with the Department of Education. But they had different views on what to do next.

Everybody, including department officials, recognizes that P.S. 64 is in need of a fresh start. At the hearing, parents complained that their children almost never come home with homework, that administrators are nearly impossible to reach on the phone, and that teachers are incompetent. But while some accept that the school is beyond salvation and want the department to provide a better setting for current students, others in the community think a total closure is a bad idea.

Marilyn Espada, a P.S. 64 parent on the district Community Education Council, echoed the cynicism shared by many when she spoke out against the phase-out. The DOE wants to put two smaller schools in P.S. 64’s place, but Espada said she did not think they would be any different.

“It basically goes back to square one – another failing school,” Espada said.

Edna Wilson, one of the women protesting before the meeting, stood next to her granddaughter, third grader Gianee, and said she didn’t think Gianee would be ready for her annual state tests. Wilson isn’t fighting the phase-out, but she said she is very concerned about what will be done immediately to help the students who will remain at P.S. 64 as it shrinks over time.

“If the school closes, I want to know what they’re going to do from now until June,” said Wilson, who plans to transfer Gianee to another school next year. “Because right now, they act like they don’t care.”

The department recently announced that it would give first crack at vacant seats in higher-performing schools to students in schools that are in the process of closing. When he briefed reporters about the new policy, Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg said part of the inspiration for the change was a conversation he had with parents at P.S. 64.

Only 18 percent of students at P.S. 64, which serves kindergarten through fifth grade, are at grade level in English. Twenty-seven percent are at grade-level in math. The New York State Education Department designated P.S. 64 a “Priority” school, meaning it is in the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide.

Instruction at P.S. 64 is in both English and Spanish. Almost half of the 884 students are English Language Learners. Over a dozen parents spoke, and about half of them spoke in Spanish. Many in the audience, composed of over 50 people, listened through headphones as a man in front translated the proceedings into Spanish for them. Some mothers cried as they pleaded with the department to put improve schools in District 9.

“I don’t think it’s fair for my son to go through this at this age,” said P.S. 64 parent Maria Hernandez, addressing Deputy Chancellor Corinne Rello-Anselmi, who sat at the front with Espada and other department officials.

Mother after mother told horror stories about P.S. 64 and the need for a significant change, and Rello-Anselmi tried at the end of the meeting to parlay those sentiments into support for a phase-out.

“We agree that a school is more than brick and mortar,” Rello-Anselmi said. “It’s what’s in it. It’s the community. … But we can no longer wait.”

State Assemblywoman Vanessa Gibson arrived halfway through the meeting. She said everybody, including the department and other policymakers, must take blame for P.S. 64’s failures and thanked the parents present for speaking out. She also said tat she agrees that P.S. 64 is in need of new leadership – she made a point to say Principal Tara O’Brien is “struggling” – but stopped short of supporting a full phase-out.

“School closures are not always the answer,” Gibson said after the hearing, echoing comments that local legislators have made increasingly often as the Bloomberg administration winds to a close. “And sometimes it feels like that’s all the department looks at.”

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.