open house

District leaders look under the hood of a Success Academy

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
School leaders from charter and district schools visited Success Academy Harlem 5 on Thursday.

At Success Academy Harlem 5, students were under a microscope on Thursday — though that wasn’t out of the ordinary for its elementary schoolers.

In most of the school’s classrooms, clipboard-toting assistants make sure students stay on task. Standing off to the side as students work, they praise and critique at a near-constant clip.

“Put the text flat on your lap,” one assistant told a student in a reading class on Thursday, taking notes. “That’s a check.”

The practice, known as “narrating,” is one of the many ways that the Success Academy school works to keep students focused during the school day. The meticulous attention paid to the details of student and teachers’ behavior — alternately credited with the network’s high test scores and derided as too regimented — was on display for 20 principals and administrators who attended a tour and training session hosted by Success, the city’s largest charter school network.

Some were from district schools, and the public invitation was seen as a gesture toward greater collaboration from Success and also as a chance to score some political points. Success schools have a history of clashing with district schools with which they share city-owned buildings, and Mayor Bill de Blasio and his allies have criticized charter schools for not serving their fair share of high-need students. City officials have repeatedly said that charter schools need to open their doors and do more to share best practices.

“Keeping in mind that charter schools’ original purpose was to share innovative practices, we also need them to come to the table and tell us what they’re doing,” schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said this week.

But most of the morning in Harlem felt comfortably distant from the political maelstrom that can seem permanently attached to Success Academy and its founder Eva Moskowitz, who has waged a public battle with de Blasio over his ambivalence over charter schools.

School leaders from 41 charter schools and 22 district schools signed up to visit one of two Success schools that were part of the tours, a spokesperson said. They came from the city’s other large charter networks, like Uncommon, KIPP and Achievement First, and from as far away as Albany. The group even included the principal of a district school that shares space with a Success Academy in the Bronx.

“We get along,” said the principal, who despite her friendly relationship with Success asked that her name not be used. “But it’s good to come and see if somebody is doing [something] different.”

Michaela Daniel, a top education policy adviser to Deputy Mayor Richard Buery and who formerly served as director of operations of an Uncommon charter school, also attended.

The visitors probed all aspects of the growing elementary school,where 97 percent of 165 third- and fourth- graders earned a proficient score in on the state math exams and 68 percent earned a proficient English score last year, when city averages were 34 percent in math and 29 percent in English. Of last year’s test-takers, 92 students were third-graders and 73 were in fourth grade.

Principal Khari Shabazz, right. is an active participant in lessons when he's observing teachers at Success Academy Harlem 5.
PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Principal Khari Shabazz, right. is an active participant in lessons when he’s observing teachers at Success Academy Harlem 5.

In focus was Success’ feedback-obsessed culture, in which someone was frequently assisting the assistants. On Thursday morning, assistant principal Lavinia Mackall stepped in to tell the rookie teacher taking notes in the reading class that he was narrating a bit too loudly.

“I noticed that he was speaking in a tone that was almost as loud as the instruction that was going on,” Mackall recalled after.

During a guided reading portion of another English class, Principal Khari Shabazz interrupted and asked a teacher to repeat her instructions to make her directive more “kid-centered” before the class turned to work.

She had initially begun by saying, “‘When I am reading, I am going to be thinking about,’” Shabazz said. “So I told her just to rephrase and make sure that they are part of that conversation.”

What made that kind of interaction possible without disrupting the lesson, Shabazz and teachers said, was the school’s rigid structure. Classes are meticulously planned, and teachers huddle beforehand to consider how students might get stuck.

The real-time feedback caught the visitors’ attention.

“I usually sit back  and let the teacher go through the lesson and then we conversate after,” said Lynn Staton, who has served as the principal of P.S. 36 in southeastern Queens for nine years. “But I do see the value of standing next to the teacher and moving along with them.”

Also on display was the school’s approach to discipline, something for which Success schools have been criticized. If a student tallies up enough checks on the assistant teacher’s clipboard, he or she must spend time away from the class. One student, who a teacher said had refused to complete a worksheet, was told to remain seated at his desk in the back of the classroom as his peers moved to a work on a rug at the front of the room.

Discipline on display: A student in a Success Academy Harlem 5 classroom was told to stay seated while the rest of the class worked out a math problem on the rug.
PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Discipline on display: A student was told to stay seated while the rest of his classmates moved to the rug to work on a math problem on the rug.

Most of the school leaders said they were impressed with the back and forth between Shabazz, Mackall, and their teachers, though others questioned whether the students they saw were overly restrained. Several requested access to the school’s schedule and curriculum in order to apply some parts of the Success model to their own schools.

Shabazz ended the morning session with a statement that underscored what stokes the interest in, and controversy around, Success Academy’s schools. Asked about his school’s test scores, Shabazz quickly pointed out that his students outperformed their peers down the hall.

“No disrespect,” Shabazz said, “but just to give you a sense of the school that I share space with, I don’t think more than 3 percent of those kids passed.”

In fact, 4 percent of P.S. 123’s students earned proficient scores in math, and 8 percent earned proficient English scores last year. But to Shabazz, the details were less important than the gap between the two schools’ performance.

“I think it’s important to think about when you talk about what is really possible,” he said.

Success Academy Principal Khari Shabazz’s coaches teachers in real time from Chalkbeat New York on Vimeo.

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.