training day

Trips, a TED talk, and Renewal decisions await teachers on training day

Thursday is a day off for students, but it will be a busy one for schools, where staffs are getting their first opportunity since Election Day for a full day of training.

Since 2006, the first Thursday of June has been a mandatory training day for teachers, principals and staff members. This time, “Renewal” schools are meeting to decide what performance benchmarks they want to hit in the coming years, others are planning field trips across the city, and — at Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s urging — many others will check out a TED Talk about the importance of connections between teachers and students.

“It’s an incredibly moving talk that may just change the way you approach education,” Fariña wrote of the video to principals last month.

It’s also the first full professional development day since Fariña’s newly-empowered district superintendents have been firmly in place, and a few are exerting their new authority. At least two superintendents instructed their principals to send them an agenda for their training days, raising eyebrows among school leaders who said it was a small but significant example of lost autonomy.

“In my five years we have never been asked to have our PD plans vetted in advance,” a principal said. “It’s a brave new world.”

An elementary school principal who also had to submit an agenda said she was surprised, but then realized it’s to be expected now.

“The stated rationale for returning to a stronger district structure is so that there is both more oversight of and support for schools,” the principal wrote in an email. “This request seemed in keeping with that intention.”

Other principals said their superintendents are taking a hands-off approach as they tailor their trainings to their schools’ needs. Judy Touzin, principal of East New York Elementary School of Excellence, said she is sending her teachers of gifted and talented students to visit the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in an effort to “use different spaces across the city to support the learning in the classroom.” Other teachers are going to Teachers College for a training session on restorative discipline practices, while paraprofessionals will stay at the school for training on how to better serve students with disabilities.

The idea is “to focus on professional learning that’s most important and targeted” for all teachers, said Touzin, who took several of her teachers to a training session hosted by the Uncommon Schools charter-school network Wednesday.

The professional development day, called “Chancellor’s Conference Day,” grew out of the (now mostly apocryphal) city holiday of Brooklyn-Queens Day. Between 1829 and 2006, schools in the boroughs were closed to honor Sunday school teachers. The tradition faded over time and was changed altogether with the 2005 teachers contract, which extended the day off to students across the city but turned it into a professional development day for teachers.

The day can serve as a reflection of changes happening in the city’s schools, and gives teachers a chance to prepare for what’s ahead. In 2012, teachers were prepping for the rollout of the Common Core standards, and hiring committees at some “turnaround” schools that were headed for closure were meeting to discuss staffing. (A judge eventually blocked the closures.) But school workshops can also be more offbeat, in the past incorporating circus skills, hip-hop dance, or rugby.

This year, much of the day for teachers and principals of the city’s struggling Renewal schools will be spent working on an improvement plan that is due to the state later this month. Among the tasks will be for school leadership teams to come to a consensus about which performance benchmarks will be used to measure their progress over the next two years.

Fariña, who has made professional development a department priority, will be visiting a Queens middle school, although a spokeswoman did not provide the name. In the afternoon, she’ll go to the School for Global Leaders, a school in her collaboration program known as Learning Partners, for the program’s end-of-year celebration.

The chancellor said in her letter to principals last month that she wants schools to watch the TED Talk by the late Rita Pierson, and recommended at least 30 minutes of “deep conversation” about the passing school year. To end the year on a high note, principals she read from a book or praiseworthy letters, she offered.

“It’s important to end the day on an uplifting note,” she wrote. “Remind your staff that you are a community and that you are joined together by a shared mission to provide for your students’ success.”

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.