A league of their own

Exclusive: Fariña to let some high schools opt out of her reorganization

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Students at City-As-School High School, which is a member of the New York Performance Standards Consortium. The Consortium will help run one of the new "affinity groups."

As most schools prepare for a system overhaul that will send them to local superintendents and city-run support centers when they need help, certain high schools can opt into citywide “affinity groups” that will allow them to keep getting support from outside organizations, city officials said Thursday.

Principals whose schools have previously partnered with one of five chosen nonprofits or the City University of New York have until the end of May to decide whether to join the groups and continue getting support from those organizations, or to switch to the city-run centers that are set to open by July.

Each affinity group will have its own superintendent, and schools that opt to join those groups must remain in them for three years. Unlike most schools under Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s revamped school-support system, which pulls together schools in the same area, affinity groups will include like-minded schools that are spread across the city.

The organizations chosen to run the new affinity groups are CUNY; New Visions for Public Schools, a large school-management group that has created scores of small schools; Urban Assembly, a smaller group that has also opened schools; Outward Bound, a nonprofit whose schools follow a particular learning model; Internationals Network for Public Schools, which serves recent immigrants; and the Performance Standards Consortium, whose members use alternative assessments instead of traditional tests. The Internationals Network and the Consortium will run a joint affinity group.

The six groups currently help manage more than 180 schools, almost all of which are high schools or schools that serve grades 6-12. No elementary or middle schools are allowed to join the affinity groups, nor are any of the low-performing schools that are part of the city’s new “Renewal” turnaround program. Schools that are not already affiliated with one of the organizations also are unable to join an affinity group at this time.

Eligible schools that are already associated with those groups will have to decide this month whether or not to stick with them, even though the groups are still negotiating with the city over what services they will provide schools under the new arrangement. The groups could offer help with curriculum, teacher training, special education, student discipline, budgeting, hiring, or other school functions. A new unit in the education department will provide the schools any services that their affinity groups do not.

New Visions President Robert Hughes said the group expects to keep most of its 80 district schools, even though New Visions is still hammering out its role within the affinity group structure.

“In some ways, I’m glad we’re entering this with the space to experiment and explore,” he said, adding that he did not expect his group to continue helping schools with “back office” functions like purchasing materials or ensuring they are in compliance with city rules.

Robert Hughes, the president of New Visions for Public Schools, said his group is still negotiating with the city about what services it will provide its school under the affinity group structure.
Robert Hughes, the president of New Visions for Public Schools, said his group is still negotiating with the city about what services it will provide its school under the affinity group structure.

In January, Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced that she was dismantling the “Children First Networks,” 55 different support teams created under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg that each served a mix of schools from across the city. Instead, superintendents will now monitor all the schools in a particular area and connect them with the nearest city-run support center when they need help with instructional or operational issues.

When Fariña announced the restructuring, she said the handful of Bloomberg-era support teams that were run by nonprofits or universities would be allowed to remain. Those groups, which had been called “Partnership Support Organizations,” or PSOs, would become affinity groups and “be brought under a superintendent,” she said.

She did not say, however, which PSOs would be spared or how she would make that decision. Behind the scenes, New Visions’ powerful board of trustees lobbied City Hall to make sure the group would not lose its schools, while other PSOs privately complained that the selection process was political and lacked transparency.

Ultimately, the city decided not to allow four groups that had operated as PSOs to become affinity groups, education department officials said Thursday. They are: Fordham University; Teaching Matters; FHI 360; and CEI-PEA, the largest group. Together, the groups supported roughly 290 schools, with CEI-PEA overseeing more than 200.

Officials said they made their decision based on several factors, including graduation rates and student test scores at the groups’ schools. But just as important is the fact that those PSOs served elementary and middle schools, not just high schools, which limits how they can be arranged.

State law dictates that elementary and middle schools be grouped in geographic districts overseen by superintendents, while high schools are not bound by those rules. That means that Fariña can put a single superintendent in charge of all the high schools in an affinity group even if they are located across the city, which would not be possible with elementary and middle schools.

Schools are free to continue to hire those organizations that were not chosen to become affinity groups to provide some services, officials said, but the bulk of their support will now come from superintendents and the new centers. Teaching Matters Executive Director Lynette Guastaferro said the city is still paying the group to offer leadership training to teachers at several schools, including some that were in the PSO.

“We are still being funded to work with a cohort of schools,” she said, adding that the 27 schools in the PSO represented just a portion of those the group works with.

While the city has now chosen the affinity groups, some issues still must be settled.

For instance, some of the groups have city-paid staffers who provided technical assistance to schools in areas like budgeting and hiring. Those groups are in talks with the city about whether they will be able to keep those employees. A person associated with one of the affinity groups said principals have been asking what will happen to those employees, including some they have worked with for years.

“It’s not just, ‘Am I going to have a person to do X?’ It’s, ‘Am I going to have Mary or John?’” said the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity since talks are ongoing. “We can’t answer that question.”

Education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye said the new organizational structure, including the affinity groups, combines customized support for schools with superintendent-enforced accountability.

“Our mission is clear,” she said in a statement, “to improve each school and better support for students, teachers, principals and families.”

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.