over-the-counter relief

In a first, a city charter school will get to enroll students mid-year

Brooklyn Prospect Charter School is allowed to enroll some students who apply after the regular admissions deadline, a first for city charter schools.

A charter school that was actively searching for a way to admit a category of high-need students kept out by a quirk in state law has found one.

The state’s charter school law does not make provisions for schools to set aside seats for students who arrive to the city from far-flung locales after the schools’ April admissions lotteries. But Brooklyn Prospect Charter School officials wanted to be able to enroll midyear arrivals, arguing that they are precisely the kind of students that charter schools are charged with serving.

“This is a population that needs to be in a good school,” the school’s executive director, Daniel Rubenstein, said last year. “Our school — which is a small, relationship-driven, intimate environment — would be better for someone that needs a community.”

According to a memo distributed today at a meeting of SUNY’s Charter Schools Committee, SUNY’s Charter Schools Institute has approved changes to Brooklyn Prospect’s admissions policies that allow the school to accept the category of students, known in Department of Education parlance as “over the counters.”

SUNY CSI’s solution hews closely to one that lawyers for the institute first identified last year. Taking advantage of the right provided in state law to give “at-risk” students priority in admissions, the school created an at-risk category that includes only students who move to the city after April 1 and also are English language learners, from low-income families, or have a parent in the military. Applicants meeting those criteria will zoom to the top of the school’s waiting list and get the first crack at seats that open up over the summer and during the school year.

The admissions policy change will not allow Brooklyn Prospect to serve some high-need categories of over-the-counter students, including those who are returning to the system after relocating temporarily, dropping out, or being incarcerated.

The new admissions rules also come in addition to, not instead of, the school’s requirement that at least 40 percent of each entering class be filled with students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. SUNY CSI approved that mandate last year, also on Brooklyn Prospect’s request.

James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, said the new admissions rules represented one way to get around the admissions challenge imposed by the state’s charter school law. But he said it is not the only way to improve charter schools’ capacity to serve high-need students, which they are increasingly under the gun to show they are doing.

“I think that’s just an increasing trend among charter school operators: looking at, as they get to scale and are more of a system, how do we integrate into the system and serve as broad an array of students as possible,” Merriman said.

The charter institute’s report notes that Brooklyn Prospect officials presented research that showed that children of active duty military personnel are at risk of academic failure. The school’s permanent location, which it moved into this year, is four miles from Fort Hamilton, an active military base in Brooklyn.

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.