College Readiness

Report: Many NYC high schools don’t offer advanced math and science courses

PHOTO: Greenlee
Greenlee students who met their reading goals got a unique reward.

You need chemistry to become a registered nurse or an emergency medical technician. You need physics to become an architect.

But those occupations could be closed off to students attending a large number of New York City high schools, according to a report released Wednesday by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School. The report found that nearly four in 10 city high schools do not offer algebra II and both physics and chemistry.

The numbers paint a grim picture of the instruction many students are receiving in the so-called STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The numbers look especially bleak for black and Hispanic students, who are underrepresented at the schools where most advanced diplomas are earned.

New York state is in the process of adopting Common Core learning standards that focus on skills students need for college-level courses or to enter higher-paying professions after high school. But as students struggle to adjust to a new Common Core-aligned algebra course, the report highlights that advanced courses remain out of reach for many students.

The rapid proliferation of small high schools in the last decade, which often offer a more limited range of academic classes than larger schools with more scheduling flexibility, are one cause, according to Clara Hemphill, editor of the school-review website Insideschools and one of the report’s authors. Another is that too many students arrive in high school ill-prepared to tackle those courses.

“Huge numbers of kids arrive in ninth grade not able to do fractions,” a skill students should begin learning in elementary school, Hemphill said. “So they just spend years and years and years getting caught up, and there’s just not enough kids who get that far.”

The city’s Department of Education is taking steps to improve its training and instruction in those subjects. In recent months, it has launched a free summer program to 1,200 students finishing second, seventh, and ninth grades focused on science, technology, engineering and math, provided more than 400 teachers with training in the STEM subjects, and released new science curriculum guidelines for elementary schools. In 2013, the city also announced an expansion of Advanced Placement courses in high-need schools.

“Our goal is to provide every New York City student with the math and science skills they need to succeed in college and meaningful careers, and we have taken concrete steps to improve offerings and raise achievement,” spokeswoman Devora Kaye said in a statement.

But the report reflects a persistent contradiction: After a decade of aggressive changes to city schools, more students than ever are earning a high school diploma, and fewer than ever are dropping out. The needle has barely moved, though, based on one measure of students’ preparedness for college-level coursework — the proportion of students earning an advanced diploma. (To receive an advanced diploma, students must pass two additional math exams and one additional science exam, among other requirements.)

There are also disparities in access to high-level courses in high school. The city’s high school choice system means that a student’s future access to advanced course offerings in math and science is largely determined by seventh grade, since many high schools admit students based on their grades and state test scores from that year.

Nearly half of all students who received an advanced diploma attended just 25 of the city’s more than 600 high schools in 2013-14. At 100 other high schools, no students received an advanced Regents diploma, compared to 18 percent of students citywide.

White and Asian students, though they make up less than one quarter of the city’s high school student population, constitute 70 percent of students at high schools with that award the most advanced diplomas. Meanwhile, at 100 schools where none of those diplomas were awarded, 92 percent of students were black or Hispanic.

The report offers some recommendations. High schools sharing space inside larger buildings should make greater effort to combine resources to offer advanced classes for top students. And recognizing that some students may never make it beyond introductory algebra, schools should offer “conceptual” courses in chemistry and physics. At Quest to Learn in Manhattan, a middle and high school, for example, teachers have developed a chemistry class for tenth graders that provides them with an introduction to the subject and, perhaps, a primer to take the Regents-level course in the following year.

A list of city high schools and their advanced math and science offerings in the 2013-14 school year can be found here.

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.