consolidated ed

Why city’s unions aren’t fighting Fariña’s school-merger plan

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Chancellor Carmen Fariña speaks with Monique Campbell, the principal of The School of Integrated Learning, one of the city schools that will begin absorbing a struggling middle school next year.

Peace Academy M.S. 596 has struggled for years. Led by a rotating cast of principals and facing dwindling enrollment, the Clinton Hill middle school was nearly closed by the Bloomberg administration in 2012.

This year, despite a name change and yet another new principals, it’s in even worse shape, enrolling just 12 sixth graders and prompting new questions about whether the school should continue in its current form.

“It would have been a miracle to save that school,” said David Goldsmith, president of the parent council that represents the District 13 school.

Now, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña — who oppose school closures except as a last resort — may be close to doing what their predecessors would not. Peace Academy could be folded into another school, Goldsmith said, part of a new consolidation strategy that would merge some struggling schools with another school nearby that is helmed by a top-notch principal.

Fariña’s broader plan, presented in two interviews last week, would share characteristics of the school closures that elicited outrage during the Bloomberg years: A struggling school would eventually lose its name, its principal, and cease to exist. But the teachers and principals unions, strong allies of de Blasio that sued to stop Bloomberg’s attempts to close schools, say they aren’t distressed by the possibility of mergers, in part because relatively few school staff members would be affected.

“There are going to be some cases where this absolutely makes sense,” Mark Cannizzaro, executive vice president for the union that represents principals and assistant principals, the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators. “Some schools are just too small to sustain themselves.”

The Bloomberg administration closed large schools, causing many teachers to lose their positions. Under a merger, teachers from both schools would be expected to remain at the consolidated school, city officials said, and they would not have to reapply for their jobs. Those provisions could make the plans palatable for the United Federation of Teachers.

“We are discussing the issues with DOE,” teachers-union spokesman Dick Riley said.

Teachers whose positions are cut will be assigned to different subjects or grades than they’ve previously taught, city officials said. If the combined school ends up with duplicated positions, the least experienced teachers from either school will lose their positions, in accordance with union rules, Riley said.

School leaders stand to be the most affected by the mergers, because consolidating administrations means there will be two principals for one spot and an excess of assistant principals. But Cannizzaro said he wasn’t concerned because Fariña’s plans were on a “very small scale right now.”

“I don’t think, at this point, that we’re anywhere close to discussing [mergers for] all under-enrolled schools,” Cannizzaro said.

Differences between the Bloomberg administration’s approach and what appears to be Fariña’s are calming other groups that opposed closures.

For one, the small schools that appear to be at risk lack the large alumni associations that sprung to the aid of some schools threatened by the Bloomberg administration. (An exception might be Boys and Girls High School, but it’s unclear whether that proposal — developed by the principal — is part of Fariña’s overarching plans.)

Tensions could still emerge once the city releases the name of the schools that could be consolidated, or when the appear before the Panel for Educational Policy. No schools will be fully consolidated until the start of the 2016-17 school year, although some changes could begin next year.

And while the Bloomberg administration’s strategy of phasing out closing schools one grade at a time was designed to minimize disruption, in reality, staff members often fled and students were encouraged to transfer out, leaving a hollowed-out school. The new plan would offer fewer incentives for staff and students to leave, potentially minimizing disruption for students and parents.

If the two schools are already sharing a building, the city would be able to promise parents that their children would stay with their classmates and maintain relationships with many of the adults at the school.

“The pluses for our people, students with disabilities, are that they’re allowing the schools to stay in the same building,” said Lori Podvesker, a special education advocate and member of the city’s Panel for Educational Policy.

The city’s move to draw attention to the consolidation plan also provides political benefits. De Blasio’s plan to improve 94 Renewal Schools got off to a slow start this year, and his approach has drawn criticism from those who favored Bloomberg’s more aggressive approach.

“This is a struggling school intervention strategy,” Department of Education spokeswoman Devora Kaye said in an email, noting that some schools that aren’t struggling will be merged, too.

That framing gives de Blasio another talking point as he tries to make his case to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature that they should renew mayoral control of the city school system and stay out of the city’s education policy affairs, though the plan has attracted attention from familiar critics.

“Masking the depth of failure by combining good schools with bad ones and diluting statistics is a move designed to shirk accountability and keep special interests satisfied,” Families for Excellent Schools CEO Jeremiah Kittredge said in a statement.

The mergers would also help solve a logistical problem that has emerged years after the city created hundreds of small schools that compete for student enrollment. Dozens of schools citywide, and nine Renewal Schools, enroll fewer than 150 students this year — eating up administrative resources in a system serving more than 1 million students.

Kaye said that merger plans are in the works for as many as a dozen schools, but the city has stayed mum on which schools will be involved. So far, the city has only confirmed that a merger is happening at two schools: M.S. 354 and M.S. 334, co-located middle schools in Crown Heights.

Goldsmith said that district officials are having “serious conversations” about a consolidation at Peace Academy, which like Boys and Girls and M.S. 334 are part of the de Blasio administration’s School Renewal turnaround program for struggling schools.

But school and District 13 officials are not eager to discuss those talks. Several options are still on the table for the tiny school, Kaye said, like changing its curriculum, revamping teacher training, or replacing the principal.

District 13 Superintendent Barbara Freeman did not respond to multiple requests for comment, and Principal Amy Rodriguez declined to comment — although her denial came through another principal.

“We are running our schools,” said James O’Brien, principal of the Brooklyn Community High School for Communication, Arts and Media, which shares a building with Peace Academy.

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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.