under pressure

For some schools, a spot on Cuomo’s ‘failing’ list but not in city’s Renewal program

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor
Gov. Andrew Cuomo pushed for a broad overhaul of state education policy last year.

Among the dozens of struggling city schools facing the threat of takeover by outside groups are about 20 troubled schools that are not part of the city’s new turnaround program, according to a Chalkbeat analysis of “failing” schools identified by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office.

More than 70 city schools fall on the governor’s list of schools that could be put under the control of outside “receivers” if they fail to make major improvements in two years or less, under the state budget passed this month. Most of the schools will get extra help through the city’s new “Renewal” initiative, but 19 schools at risk of takeover are not part of that support program, according to Chalkbeat’s analysis.

The governor’s list is based on criteria similar to what is in the law. However, state education department officials cautioned that the law gives the agency’s commissioner some leeway when writing the regulations that will identify takeover schools. Because the agency is still developing those regulations based on the new law, it does not have a final list of those schools, the officials said.

Still, Cuomo’s preliminary list of potential takeover schools puts the city in an uncomfortable position. Mayor Bill de Blasio had argued that Cuomo’s plan was unnecessary because the city has its own aggressive turnaround program, but now it is clear that a number of the troubled schools on Cuomo’s list are not in that program.

A city education department spokeswoman said that every school — whether or not they are in the Renewal program — will get help from the newly empowered superintendents and the coming school-support centers, which are set to open this summer. Schools will get guidance around special-needs students, curriculum, teacher training, and more, said spokeswoman Devora Kaye.

The superintendents and support-center teams will work together, Kaye said, “to recognize a school’s strengths and diagnose a school’s weakness more expeditiously and set a better course of action to drive student achievement.”

The law divides the state’s lowest-performing schools into “failing” schools that have been bottom-ranked for three years, and “persistently failing” schools that have floundered for at least a decade. The “failing” schools have two years to make gains and the “persistently failing” schools have just one year before they could be put under the control of a receiver — a nonprofit, school district, or individual selected by the city schools chief.

The city has eight of those long-struggling schools, and 65 of the more recently troubled schools (excluding schools that are in the process of closing), according to the governor’s list. All of the eight schools are in the city’s Renewal program, but 19 of the remaining schools are not, according to Chalkbeat’s analysis.

The city used the state’s accountability measures to identify low-performing schools for its turnaround program, but also added other criteria, which is why some schools that are not in the Renewal program could still face receivership.

One of those schools is Community Health Academy of the Heights, a combined middle and high school in Washington Heights.

The school, which is on the state’s “failing” list, has a smaller share of students who passed annual exams or graduated in four years than the city average. At the same time, it significantly boosted the share of students who passed last year’s exams and its six-year graduation rate exceeds the city average — perhaps reasons why the school is not in the city’s Renewal program.

“On some things, we need to do a lot of work. On some things, we’re doing really well,” said Principal Mark House, noting that the school has also made strides in non-academic areas, such as parent-survey results and student participation in after-school programs. “It really depends on who’s doing the measurement.”

Potential takeover schools must enact improvement plans that include measures of progress such as test scores and attendance, suspension, and graduation rates, according to the law. If the schools do not make “demonstrable improvement” on those metrics, then the city must appoint receivers to take over.

The receivers have broad authority: they can modify a school’s budget or curriculum, increase salaries, or turn district schools into charters, and they must bring in more social and health services, the law says. They can also fire principals and force teachers to reapply for their jobs. However, if they want to change parts of the school covered by the teachers contract — such as the length of the day or year, or class size — they must negotiate with the teachers union.

City schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, like other district chiefs, will have the same powers over those schools as a receiver during the one-to-two years she has to revamp them. The budget law also includes $75 million for the “persistently failing” schools, or about $2.8 million per school.

Principals union President Ernest Logan said he was confident the city will keep the schools from reaching the point of receivership. Still, he said just the threat of takeover may make it hard for the schools to keep or attract skilled teachers and principals.

“You have to have a second thought about, ‘Should I go in and take over this school if I only have two years to turn this around?’” he said. “There’s no incentive to go there.”

The following chart lists low-performing schools identified by the governor’s office, and notes which are part of the city’s Renewal program and which are being phased out:

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.