Network Outage

To some principals, rise of superintendents signals decline of networks

Officially, principals are still awaiting word from the city about the future of “networks,” the Bloomberg-era support teams designed to help principals do everything from train teachers to manage budgets.

But to many, the writing is on the wall: Networks as they know them are finished.

Perhaps the clearest sign of this, according to several principals and network officials, is the resurgence of superintendents, the education department field commanders who were sidelined by the previous administration in an attempt to give principals greater autonomy. Under Chancellor Carmen Fariña, the superintendents have been rehired and retrained, and are now meeting individually with principals, weighing in on instructional matters, and hosting training sessions — activities that until now had been under the purview of networks.

Meanwhile, some school and network leaders say they have heard that networks could soon lose their role assisting schools with budget and operational issues, leaving them as little more than coaches, or “professional developers,” in school parlance. While Fariña is not slated to announce her new system for supporting schools until next month, she appeared to confirm some of the speculation about the networks’ diminishing authority in an interview Monday.

“I think the people in networks who are professional developers will be professional developers. We’re never going to lose that,” she told Chalkbeat. But she added that superintendents, whose main reason for visiting schools in recent years has been to rate principals, will now play a much greater part in guiding them.

“I think having the person who evaluates you be the person who supports you is very important, and that’s really what the superintendents will be doing,” she said.

The network system’s many critics, including some principals who find them ineffective, welcome the changes. But some who cherish their self-selected networks, which offer assistance to principals but can’t command or sanction them, dread the return to a superintendent-led system.

“A lot of us are nervous,” said one principal, who like other school and network leaders would only speak anonymously about possible policy changes. “The signs point to networks may no longer exist — certainly not in this form.”

After several reorganizations, the Bloomberg administration eventually settled on a system of nearly 60 support networks, which principals could choose from and that took over many of the duties once overseen by superintendents. The superintendents technically remained principals’ bosses, but their role was reduced mainly to conducting formal evaluations and their staffs shrank from dozens to a handful.

Under Fariña, herself a former superintendent, that position is regaining its clout.

After forcing them to reapply for their jobs this summer (more than a third were replaced), Fariña began to hold hour-long, one-on-one meetings with each of the more than 40 superintendents to explain their revamped roles. They were given new responsibilities — interact with parents, promote arts education, ensure that quality teaching happens in schools — and told to act as “the eyes and ears of the chancellor.”

“To me, the superintendents are huge,” Fariña said Monday. “Having people in the field that I can trust, that have my same belief system, that are going to be in schools all the time, is important.”

A summer teachers workshop organized by the school-support network, N403.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A summer teachers workshop organized by the school-support network, N403.

The superintendents have started to hire new staffers, including instructional experts to help evaluate the 60 or so schools that some superintendents oversee. They have also started to host district-wide meetings, which all but disappeared under the network system. While the meetings vary by superintendent, some principals have complained about ones held during the school day, where some say they have sat through talks by curriculum vendors and, in one case, Miss New York.

“I can’t speak enough to the lack of quality or purpose” at those meetings, one principal said.

Principals who value their networks worry that the rise of superintendents may signal the decline of networks.

To those principals, the network system empowered them to choose the type of support they wanted from experts who, unlike superintendents, would not also evaluate them. They also enabled school leaders in the same network to interact with like-minded colleagues outside their geographic districts. One principal in a high-needs Brooklyn district said she not only gets advice from her counterparts who lead successful schools in better-off districts, but also receives donated books and furniture from them.

“I’ve gotten an immense amount of support from other principals in my network,” the school leader said.

Predictably, some network officials are upset by the changes.

Some say that principals are now receiving dueling messages from networks and superintendents about how to run their schools, but that the school leaders feel compelled to defer to the will of their bosses, the superintendents. They also say that network staffers are starting to consider new jobs.

“There are a number of people on network teams who are being recruited to central jobs,” one network leader said, referring to positions within the city education department. “There are other people who are actively looking.”

Of course, the network system’s many critics — including some state officials and union leaders — have called for an overhaul since before Fariña was appointed.

They argue that some networks are spread too thin trying to assist schools in multiple boroughs, while others let struggling schools limp along without extra help. Others say the system leaves principals without clear supervisors and parents without officials they can appeal to.

Genevieve Stanislaus, principal of Life Sciences Secondary School in the Upper East Side, said the network system is “too scattered,” adding it can keep principals in the same neighborhood who are in different networks from collaborating. During her 34 years working in the school system, the most help she ever received was from her one-time superintendent, she said.

“He knew every one of his 41 schools, and his deputy visited even more often,” she said. “They were always there to support you and assist you.”

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.