the end

Stressful admissions process ends with sigh of relief for some students

PHOTO: Sarah Darville
Divine Jones with her mom, Danimaris Fonseca.

Leaving the citywide high school fair in September, Tiffany Mejia, an eighth grader in the Bronx, had her heart set on Food and Finance High School in Manhattan.

By December, when she had to submit a list of up to 12 high school choices to her guidance counselor, she had pushed Food and Finance to second place in favor of Humanities Preparatory Academy, a small school in Chelsea that enrolls both traditional ninth-graders and students who have previously struggled in other high schools.

And by Tuesday, when her school gave students the high school admissions letters the city had released the day before, Mejia said she just wanted the waiting to end. She was one of several students Chalkbeat met during the process and followed up with this week.

“I was scared, I was excited, I was nervous, I was just crazy,” Mejia said.

Mejia got her third choice, Wadleigh Secondary School for Performing and Visual Arts in Harlem — a small school that has repeatedly landed on the city’s list of lowest-performing schools in recent years. She said she was happy because she had heard good things about the school and because a close friend who also had her sights set on Food and Finance back in September was also matched with Wadleigh.

“That was one of the most exciting things about it, because I wanted to go to the same high school as at least one of my friends,” Mejia said. She said she didn’t have much sympathy for friends who weren’t matched with their top choices, because other students didn’t get matched at all.

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Ten percent of students citywide weren’t matched with schools during the first round and will have to reapply for unfilled seats and seats in new schools during a second round this month.

Jose Vilson, who teaches math at I.S. 52 in Washington Heights, said the number of students at his school who weren’t matched with any high school had declined from last year. But he said other students were just unhappy with their matches and might decide to appeal and try their luck in the second round.

Vilson said he and his colleagues knew from experience that it would be hard to get students’ attention after releasing the letters. So they gathered the eighth graders in the auditorium during the last period of the day on Tuesday.

 “There’s either a ton of excitement or a lot of sadness going on,” he said. “There’s very little in between.”

Divine Jones, an eighth grader who got her first choice, said she and her classmates felt the high stakes of the admissions process even though they could opt to attend their charter network’s high school.

“If we don’t get our top choice we don’t feel smart even though we are,” said Jones, who attends Bedford Stuyvesant Collegiate Charter School, part of the Uncommon Schools charter network. “One of my classmates didn’t get any of her choices. I felt bad because I know how smart she is but the high schools didn’t get to see that.”

Jones decided to apply to a district high school rather than staying at Uncommon for high school. She got into her first choice, Medgar Evers College Preparatory School in Brooklyn, a selective school of about 1,200 students.

“It feels awesome,” she said. “I”m going to be in a new environment with different people who are like me and ready to learn. I don’t have to hide my nerdiness and stuff.” Jones said she had hoped to get into a specialized high school but now felt that Medgar Evers would be “a little more me-ish.”

Jones said she wasn’t the only one at her school to look beyond Uncommon’s high school, which combines students from several middle schools run by the network.

“We go to a charter school [and] we have to stay in our seats,” she said. But when high school acceptance letters were distributed, “people were literally jumping out of their seats they were so nervous and excited.”

Her mother, Danimaris Fonseca, said she visited Medgar Evers during the application process with her daughter, and found that the environment there reminded her of the Brooklyn school she attended as a child, the Philippa Schuyler Middle School for the Gifted and Talented.

“One of my main things was like a nurturing family-like community environment. Because I know high school can be very intimidating, and I didn’t want her to come from a charter school which is really small and go to a huge high school where she felt intimidated by kids and teachers,” Fonseca said.

Another Brooklyn charter school, Explore, reported that nearly half of the 54 eighth graders were accepted to selective high schools, and one was among the seven black students accepted to the ultra-elite Stuyvesant High School. Just one student who had aimed for a public high school had not been matched, according to a spokeswoman for the network.

Some students, including Anthony Ureña, still haven’t received their letters.

As of Tuesday evening, Ureña, who attends eighth grade at I.S. 215 in the Bronx, still hadn’t heard where he would attend high school. His first choice is the High School for Arts and Business in Queens. He said teachers told him he’d find out on Friday, and that he and his friends don’t mind the wait.

“You know, you’ve got to wait for a long time to see if you got accepted or not,” he said. “So we mostly stopped talking about it.”

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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.