school safety

As de Blasio pushes fewer suspensions, advocacy group attacks school safety record

An advocacy group known for its opposition to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s education policies says the mayor misled the public when it trumpeted a drop in violence in New York City schools.

The criticism and an accompanying report mark a new tactic for the group, Families for Excellent Schools, and highlight de Blasio’s potential vulnerability on the issue of school safety. His administration has been mounting an effort to overhaul school discipline, urging schools to give out fewer suspensions and use alternative approaches.

In a report released Thursday, Families for Excellent Schools points to state data showing that violence in schools is increasing. Almost 16,000 violent crimes were reported in schools in 2015 — almost 3,000 more than the previous year — and the highest number of incidents since at least 2005, according to the report.

At the same time, city data — which is collected and submitted in a different way, and has long differed from the state’s numbers — show a decrease in the total number of safety incidents since last year and over the last decade.

City officials said that the state’s metric is deceiving because it not distinguish between minor interactions and severe altercations.

“This data is misleading; the total number of incidents at NYC public schools decreased nearly 8% last school year to historic lows, and crime, arrests and summonses are down across the board,” said Toya Holness, a spokeswoman for the education department.

State officials implied that the metric can be problematic, since schools report their own data, and said the education department has already convened a task force to revise the system. The group’s objective is to make it less complicated to report incidents and emphasize violent offenses, state officials said.

“The Department’s ultimate goal is to ensure that we are able to report the most accurate school safety data possible,” said Jonathan Burman, spokesman for the education department.

Even as de Blasio’s critics say his discipline-policy changes have made schools less safe, advocates have raised a different set of concerns. They support the shift to a less punitive approach to discipline, but say the city has done too little to help schools make the transition. On Wednesday, the group Educators 4 Excellence-New York held a demonstration at City Hall to call for more guidance counselors and de-escalation training for teachers.

De Blasio’s push for alternative discipline strategies is part of a national shift away from “zero tolerance” policies, which called for harsh penalties even for nonviolent infractions. Such policies have been shown to disproportionately affect students of color, while doing little to improve student behavior.

Last year, the city required principals to begin getting approval before suspending students for insubordination, and de Blasio convened a task force to make policy recommendations around school safety and discipline. The mayor’s budget for next school year includes funding for some schools to be trained in “restorative justice,” which pushes students to repair any harm their behaviors have caused.

As some schools are just beginning to make the switch to this new discipline approach, critics of the shift are looking for signs that it is backfiring. One student caught with seven bags of marijuana was given only a warning card, according to a recent New York Post article.

Families for Excellent Schools, which has previously been critical of the administration’s stance on charter schools and its “Renewal” school program, is now joining the fray.

But others said say their claim has little backing. Dawn Yuster, the social justice project director at Advocates for Children, said she has seen little evidence that de Blasio’s reforms hinder school safety.

“[The NYPD] are the last people that want to risk safety of anyone and they have been real supporters of trying to make change,” she said.

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.