partial response

City releases limited data about impact of special ed changes

Three years after launching an effort to integrate more students with special needs in mainstream classrooms, the Department of Education has some news about the initiative’s effects.

The department today released data showing that students with special needs in schools that participated in the first phase of the initiative saw their test scores improve more than students with disabilities at similar schools that were not in the program. Their attendance rates rose and suspension rates fell more than the students with disabilities at similar schools, too.

And as the initiative expanded citywide this year, students frequently moved to less restrictive classroom settings in sixth and ninth grade, the years where the department required schools to serve all eligible students, regardless of their disability.

The information partially satisfied special education advocates, who are on board with the goals of the city’s reforms but have been clamoring for more data about the reforms’ impact for more than a year.

“From what I am seeing here it looks like there are positive trends — but I’m not seeing everything here that I want to,” said Maggie Moroff, who heads the ARISE Coalition of advocates.

In January, Moroff submitted a Freedom of Information Law request to the Department of Education, asking for 25 kinds of information about the effects of the special education reforms. She asked for documents showing how students with different kinds of needs fared during the 260-school pilot; how often the city asked for permission to have oversized classes with students with special needs; and how frequently parents in the pilot schools filed formal complaints about their children’s placement.

Corinne Rello-Anselmi, the Department of Education deputy chancellor in charge of special education, said the city would continue to collect data as the reforms move into their second year of citywide implementation. In particular, she said, the department would be looking at the formal complaint rate this year.

But she said she thought schools had done a good job of defusing potential conflicts by working with parents and clearing up misconceptions about the reforms, which required a new way of thinking about how to assign students to classroom settings but did not mandate any particular placement. The department has held 970 training sessions since the beginning of the school year for school staff, according to the data released today, and Rello-Anselmi said officials had worked closely with schools that needed more help adjusting to the changes.

“I would love to say everybody got it right on the first shot,” she said. “Some schools were doing it very well and some schools were struggling, and that’s where we put our targeted support.”

Moroff said ARISE and Advocates for Children, which hosts the coalition, hear regularly from parents who are dissatisfied with their children’s placement under the reforms. But she said those cases might very well be extreme.

“It’s hard for us to analyze based on the families we talk to,” Moroff said. “We really want to see more complete data.”

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.