District cuts top $288 million

Colorado school districts chopped more than $288 million out of their budgets as they prepared for the 2010-11 school year, according to data compiled by the Colorado School Finance Project.

While the data doesn’t provide a complete picture of school district budget cuts, it seems to give a reasonable overview of how the current fiscal situation has affected districts.

The project, a non-profit organization that studies school finance data and trends, compiled the data from media reports in communities around the state and updated its list earlier this month. Many school districts adopted their final budgets in June, before the July 1 start of the 2010-11 fiscal year.

Tracie Rainey, director of the project, noted there are limitations in relying on media reports, but she said the list “gives a flavor” of what’s happened around the state.

The survey covered only 75 of the state’s 178 school districts. But those districts enroll about 745,000 students, just under 90 percent of total statewide enrollment. The information covered all but two of the state’s 25 largest districts.

The project also sent a questionnaire to all school districts, but as of last week only 23 districts had responded, including only six of the top 25 districts. Rainey said Thursday that responses are continuing to come in and that the project expects to make an “updated round” of that report, perhaps as early as next week.

School districts, which overall receive 65 percent of their funding from the state, have been hammered by the state’s revenue and budget woes. The 2010-11 school finance act and the main state budget bill set state and local total program funding at about $5.4 billion for the budget year that started July 1. That compares to a little less than $5.6 billion for 2009-10 and is about the same as 2008-09 funding.

This year marks the first time that the legislature didn’t apply the full Amendment 23 formula to school spending, an historic change. It’s estimated full 2010-11 funding under A23 would have been about $5.8 billion.

The project’s compilation also reported some information about how districts made their cuts. (Note that totals may be incomplete because of what was or wasn’t reported in local media.) Here are some highlights:

  • Staff reductions: 58 districts used cuts, attrition and/or hiring freezes.
  • Salary and benefits: 32 districts made reductions or freezes in salaries and/or benefits.
  • Furlough days: 19 districts
  • Larger class sizes: 15 districts
  • Reductions in programs, electives: 23 districts
  • Cuts in transportation services: 22 districts
  • Freezes in book and technology purchases; deferred maintenance: 19 districts
  • Increased fees: 38 districts
  • Use of reserves: 21 districts
  • Reduction in instructional hours: 4 districts
  • Four-day school weeks: 7 districts

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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.