Roll call!

Why it’s hard to get students to come to class — and what one Memphis school is doing about it

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Eighth-grader LaTonja Boyce now gets driven by a family member to Riverview School, a K-8 school in south Memphis, but that's not always been the case.

LaTonja Boyce knows the challenges of getting to school when the odds are stacked against you. An eighth-grader at Riverview School in Memphis, she’s moved a lot — from home to home and family member to family member — without the structure, resources and guidance needed to get to school every day and on time.

“Going to school isn’t always like the cool thing to do or what you see other kids on your street doing,” says LaTonja, 13, who now lives with a grandmother while her siblings are in foster care. “But I’ve had teachers make me want to come. I know they will check on me if I’m not there … and they explain why (education) is important for your future.”

LaTonja’s story isn’t unique. High rates of mobility and poverty are among hurdles that stand in the way of getting to school in Memphis, where chronic absenteeism is a major challenge.

Last school year, 29,000 students in Shelby County Schools missed 18 or more school days. And it’s worse for Tennessee students living in poor neighborhoods. Those considered economically disadvantaged are three times more likely to be chronically absent, according to a state report released this year.

For students who defy the odds, encouragement from a teacher or mentor is a common theme.

Sixth-grader Miranda Moore began attending Riverview when her school, Lincoln Elementary, was closed by the district in 2015. It was hard coming to class when she felt behind the other students, but encouragement and attention from teachers made a huge difference.

“Whenever I feel like I’m not getting something, I like it when teachers break us up into groups and have us help each other put what the teacher is saying into our own words,” Miranda says. “When students feel like they can’t catch up because they’re new or they’ve missed a lot or whatever, some just stop trying.”

This month, to highlight the importance of school attendance, Shelby County Schools launched an attendance campaign in partnership with the Memphis Grizzlies NBA team to incentivize students to show up. The focus is on 10 schools that had 10 percent of last year’s most-absent students.

Riverview wasn’t among schools targeted by this year’s campaign, partly because the K-8 school in south Memphis has made strides in recent years to curb attendance woes. Principal Latasha Harris credits a revamped school culture and increased communication with parents, many of whom live in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

Last year, before the first school bell even sounded, Riverview employees called parents’ phones and knocked on relatives’ doors to make sure students started the school year strong. It worked, with most students registered by the first day of school.

Riverview educators made a similar push this year, and took it a step further by throwing a “block party” in early August to get families on the school campus and get students registered.

Despite making strides with middle schoolers, Riverview has struggled with elementary attendance, prompting Harris to enlist the help of Communities in Schools, a nonprofit partner in a national dropout prevention program.

“We have a site director (from Communities in Schools) here every day, and one of her sole priorities is attendance,” Harris said. “Having someone to meet with parents and understand why they might be struggling to get their kids to school, that’s huge. It’s been extremely helpful.”

In meetings with parents, Riverview leaders learned about the need for a uniform closet, which the school established at the front office so students can access clothing if they don’t have a clean uniform.

"When students feel like they can’t catch up because they’re new or they’ve missed a lot or whatever, some just stop trying."Miranda Moore, student

“We found that students were missing school because they didn’t have the right thing to wear, or their uniform was dirty, and they were getting called out on it in class,” Harris said. “So now we have this closet with everything you can think of — from shirts to underwear.”

Relationships go a long way in connecting students to school life, so Harris coaches her teachers to nurture a caring environment.

Jerreca Saulsberry, a third-grade math and science teacher, agrees. She says the No. 1 reason that students struggle to come to school consistently is an unstable home environment.

“I grew up in this area and had a similar childhood to many of the kids in my classroom,” Saulsberry said. “For me, teachers in school were always my safe haven. That made me want to show up. I wanted to come back to teach to create same environment.”

second chance

An embattled Harlem charter school that serves kids with disabilities will be allowed to keep its middle school — for now

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

A Harlem charter school will be allowed to keep its middle school next school year, despite the fact that top city education officials have repeatedly ruled that it is too low performing to stay open.

That decision offers at least temporary relief for Opportunity Charter School, which has been embroiled in a dispute with the education department since March. The disagreement centers on whether city officials properly took into account the school’s students — over half of whom have a disability — when it judged the school’s performance.

The city’s education department, which oversees the school as its charter authorizer, tried to close the middle school and offered only a short-term renewal for the high school when the school’s charter came up for review earlier this year. The school appealed that decision, and was denied late last month.

But the education department is backing down from its position — at least for now. That reversal appears to be based mostly on logistics: A Manhattan Supreme Court judge has temporarily blocked the closure through at least mid-July in response to a lawsuit filed by the school and some of its parents last month, complicating the process of finding students new schools outside the normal admissions cycle.

“Students always come first, and given where we are in the school year, we will allow the middle school grades to remain open in 2017-18,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman wrote in an email on Thursday. Still, he noted, the department will continue to push to close the middle school in the future.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing Opportunity Charter, said the city’s decision was the only responsible one, given that the school has already held its admissions lottery and made offers to parents.

“This is a wise decision by the [education department],” Quinn wrote in an email, “and [we] appreciate their acknowledgment that placement of this population at this time would be significantly disruptive.”

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”