life support

UFT Charter School to stay open with conditions and co-location

Students read books at the UFT Charter School, which narrowly escaped closure today. The struggling school will be allowed to stay open for at least another two years.

The UFT Charter School received a two-year lifeline today, thanks in part to a city policy that the teachers union has opposed in the past.

The Department of Education’s proposal to move the school’s struggling middle grades under the same roof as the elementary school next year was an important reason that authorizers voted to renew the school’s charter for two more years, state officials said today. The school now faces an automatic “death penalty” in 2015 if academic performance doesn’t improve.

“I don’t want to have another round of this,” said Joseph Belluck, chairman of SUNY’s Charter Schools Committee. “Now is their time to show they can do this.”

The UFT Charter School was already open on a probationary basis, and years of low student performance, organizational dysfunction, and financial distress left its future in doubt. A report by SUNY CSI reviewers released last week detailed those struggles but — unusually — did not include a recommendation for whether committee members should vote to keep the school open or close it down.

Today, the three-person committee led by Belluck voted reluctantly to keep the school open. Committee members said the school’s middle grades did not deserve to stay open, but they said that closing the middle school would have left a “donut hole” between the higher-performing elementary school grades and the relatively new high school grades, where achievement is less clear.

Before their vote, they discussed some of the improvement plans that the school has going forward, including a move to consolidate the elementary and middle schools in the same public school building.

Currently, the schools are separated by about a mile, and school administrators have argued that being separated has held back the middle school’s ability to improve. Consolidating the locations would reduce high attrition between fifth and sixth grades and foster more collaboration between teachers at the two school levels, they said.

“The school indicates that … a K-8 program at that campus will address the problems that the middle school has had academically,” said Susan Miller Barker, who is not part of the committee but attended the meeting because she oversees school reviews for the SUNY Charter School Institute.

The argument puts the union in a potentially uncomfortable predicament. The union has been critical of many charter school co-locations, arguing that they unfairly take away space from district schools. In 2011, it unsuccessfully sued the city to reverse its charter school co-location plans for the upcoming school year. More recently, UFT President Michael Mulgrew has lobbied mayoral candidates to support a moratorium on co-locations, singling out charter schools in particular.

In a statement today, Mulgrew, who serves on the school’s board, said he was pleased with the renewal decision. “We are happy to see that the SUNY authorizers have recognized the many successes of our charter school, and have given the school the chance to build on those successes during the next two years,” he said.

A UFT spokesman said the union was not uniformly opposed to all charter school co-locations. “Our objections have been to co-locations where there isn’t enough room and/or community opposition,” Dick Riley said.

It’s unclear how J.H.S. 292, the district school that currently shares space with the UFT Charter Elementary School, feels about the city’s plans to move additional grades into the building. According the city plans, the building’s utilization rate would increase from 70 percent to more than 90 percent, meaning that access to classrooms and shared space such as the gymnasium, auditorium, and cafeteria would be less flexible.

When reached on the phone this afternoon, Principal Gloria Williams Nandan declined to comment. But she said she would be speaking about the co-location plan at a public hearing on Wednesday. The Panel for Educational Policy is set to vote on the proposal March 11.

The renewal decision was criticized by StudentsFirstNY, which is aligned to Mayor Bloomberg on education issues and is a frequent critic of the union’s role in education.

“The decision to allow the UFT Charter School to remain open for another two years is yet another example of politics coming before the interests of our kids,” said StudentsFirstNY spokeswoman Chandra Hayslett.

The renewal also drew criticism from charter school advocates, who have characterized repeated short-term renewals as anathema to the charter movement’s philosophy of flexibility in exchange for tough accountability.

Greg Richmond, CEO of the National Alliance of Charter School Authorizers, which has called on states to crack down on low-performing charter schools, said that short-term renewals were often a way for authorizers to protect themselves politically. It can appease parents and the school community that doesn’t want to see the school closed, while simultaneously keeping up a false perception of heightened accountability.

“I think a lot of times these short-term renewals are something that makes the the [authorizer] comfortable,” Richmond said. “They can have their cake and eat it too.”

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.