a second look

For three co-located schools, Learning Partners pilot leads to plenty of suggestions

PHOTO: Geoff Decker

The eight schools housed in the massive John F. Kennedy campus in the Bronx get along. Schools share floors of the building, administrators meet regularly, and teachers often stop to chat while passing in the hallways.

But when it comes to teachers knowing what goes on inside each other’s classrooms, the schools might as well be in different boroughs.

“I’ve been in this building for seven years and I’ve never been in this room,” said Wanda Dingman, an assistant principal at the Marble Hill School for International Studies, sitting inside a High School for Law and Finance classroom.

Dingman was finally in the room, which is outfitted with wooden benches for a criminal law class’ mock trials, through the city’s new Learning Partners program. The program is the extension of Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s guiding theory that schools can improve by sharing their best ideas with others. And as the pilot program gets underway this spring, Chalkbeat tagged along for one of those idea-swapping visits to ask, how is it working?

The day-long meeting included staff members from Marble Hill, Law and Finance, and Bronx Engineering and Technical Academy—schools that have a lot in common and make up one of the pilot program’s seven “triads.” All three high schools are inside the JFK campus, so teachers are a just flight of stairs or a few doorways from some classroom visits. They also benefit from sharing a school support organization, New Visions for New Schools.

But Law and Finance is an open-enrollment school that serves a different student population than Marble Hill, which itself serves a high proportion of recent immigrants and English Language Learners. Law and Finance has more than twice as many students with special needs and a high percentage of overage students. The school’s attendance rate is 82 percent, about 10 points below the city average.

As the day began, staff members said that even small amounts of mutual feedback have already sparked change. After one visit to Marble Hill, BETA is redesigning its seven-week summer school program for incoming freshmen based on Marble Hill’s model. Principal Karalyne Sperling said that if it’s successful, she might incorporate it into a new career and technical program that she’s developing.

Those conversations continued as Law and Finance hosted staff members from both Marble Hill and BETA—when it was clear that the program is causing some anxieties as well.

The full-day visit started with a presentation from Law and Finance assistant principal Tyrone Iton, who said he wanted Marble Hill to help his school improve the “rigor” and consistency of its classes. Law and Finance’s challenges were occasionally on display during the classroom visits: In one economics class, where students were calculating what their yearly raises should be in order to keep up with inflation, visiting adults outnumbered the students.

But the teachers’ and administrators’ takeaways were varied, and ideas didn’t always flow from host school to partner school. Marble Hill’s Dingman said she had learned some things herself, pointing to the group’s visit to a 10th grade English classroom where students passed around a conch shell and debated the role that two Lord of the Flies characters played in the murder of Piggy.

“The teacher said almost nothing at all,” said Dingman, which she attributed to high student engagement with the Socratic-style seminar. “I’d like to see more of that in my school.”

Still, the partner schools said they were looking to Marble Hill’s example. One key to that school’s success in graduating their mostly high-need students at an 89 percent clip, and preparing a larger-than-average percentage of them for college, is its project-based curriculum, teachers said.

Teachers and principals agreed that the length and number of visits prescribed by the Learning Partners are likely to prompt concerns. BETA Principal Sperling said she had to issue reassurances to teachers wary of missing class as students were preparing to take end-of-year Regents exams.

“We’re a small school, so for five of us to be out, that’s a big deal,” said Jessica Goring, principal of Law and Finance. “But do we make it work? Absolutely, because we believe in it.”

Next year, the city plans to include 75 schools in the program. The city received 253 applications, including seven from charter schools, officials said.

As the program grows, principals at the JFK campus all said they hoped to remain together since the pilot program started so late into the school year. The city hasn’t guaranteed that yet.

Joseph Urrico, a social studies teacher in his fifth year at BETA, said that collaboration had never felt possible in the past. “We share floors,” he said, “but there’s so many things to do.”

Correction: A previous version misattributed a quote to the principal of Bronx Engineering and Technical Academy. The correct attribution is to Jessica Goring, principal at the High School for Law and Finance. 

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.