rookie of the year

First-year principal wins $25,000 to scale up collaborative teaching

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
James Madison High School Principal Jodie Cohen wins the 2014 Teaching Matters Elizabeth Rohatyn prize.

It didn’t take long for Jodie Cohen to distinguish herself when she became principal of James Madison High School last year.

After just one year in charge, Cohen bested over 150 principals to win the 2014 Elizabeth Rohatyn Prize, an award that recognizes school leaders who jump-start successful initiatives at their schools. The prize includes a $25,000 check, sponsored by education nonprofit Teaching Matters, to be used to continue and expand their initiative.

Despite her rookie status, Cohen already knew the 3,100-student school well. She graduated from the Marine Park high school in 1989 and spent 21 years working there as a teacher and assistant principal.

But that in some ways made the job more intimidating, Cohen said on Thursday at an award ceremony with other finalists and their staffs. As the school’s new boss, she had to observe and evaluate one senior teacher who had taught her when she was a student.

“Here I am, grading them on 22 components,” said Cohen, referring to the skills that principals had to rate teachers on this year. “So, it was interesting.”

But extra classroom visits, required by the new evaluation system, is actually what helped Cohen identify the best instructional practices, she said. She used those teachers to create “model classrooms” and began urging others to visit.

“It’s not that the other teachers aren’t succeeding, but more often than not, you don’t know what’s going on in the room next door to you,” Cohen said.

Madison High School’s collaborative model fits what the Department of Education is trying to do with 72 schools through its Learning Partners Program, which encourages schools to visit one another to learn what’s working elsewhere. Cohen said she planned to apply, but didn’t think she was ready this year.

“That was a lot of commitment on our part,” she said. “We would have to allow people to visit. We do want to do that next year, but we really just wanted to ease in a little bit more.”

At Madison, one example was special education teacher Connie Hickey, who saw problems with how students with disabilities were being served in general education classrooms. Special education teachers shared the class with subject-area teachers, but the co-teaching model was disjointed and their work was isolating. 

“It tended to be, well, I’ll teach one day, you teach the next,” Hickey said. “It wasn’t working.”

Hickey and a social studies teacher worked well together at integrating special education students into their classroom. So Cohen made their classroom into a model for others to visit.

Still, it was up to Cohen to actually get teachers to visit, and she quickly realized her advocacy alone wasn’t going to work in a building with 130 teachers. To build excitement around the practice, she promoted the visits in a weekly newsletter and created a calendar to schedule visiting times.

Cohen said she plans to spend some of the $25,000 prize money to pay staff who have to put in extra hours as part of the program. Larry Melamed, an English teacher, public relations pro and grant writer for the school, is going to manage next year’s schedule for the entire school.

Cohen hired Melamed for another reason this year: to improve what Cohen referred to as the school’s “weird reputation,” caused by a small number of teachers whose scandalous behavior was gleefully chronicled by the city’s tabloids.

“That’s not what Madison High School’s all about,” she said.

Cohen’s transition was probably a lot smoother than it is for many first-year principals. She was popular among teachers as an assistant principal, so they welcomed her promotion. Also, the majority of students come from surrounding neighborhoods and few come from socioeconomically disadvantaged homes. And most of the staff are seasoned educators who stay at Madison for much of their careers, so the staff had most of the ingredients needed to quickly adopt Cohen’s vision.

“All the teachers want to learn, want to do better at what they do and all they needed was a principal who fosters that learning,” said Hickey.

The Rohatyn prize is in its fourth year and named after the founder of Teaching Matters. Past winners include Salvador Fernandez, of I.S. 52 in Inwood, Rose Kerr, of Staten Island School of Civic Leadership, and Jeanne Rotunda, of West Side Collaborative.

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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.