Colorado

Barbara O’Brien to head Get Smart Schools

Colorado’s former lieutenant governor and a longtime advocate for Colorado’s kids will take over Get Smart Schools, the nonprofit organization announced today.

Barbara O’Brien, then the lieutenant governor, at a 2010 press conference. <em>EdNews</em> file photo.

Get Smart Schools Board Chair Eric Sondermann said Barbara O’Brien will become the organization’s new president and CEO succeeding the organization’s founding executive director, Amy Slothower.

Get Smart Schools is a 5-year-old Colorado nonprofit dedicated to expanding the number of charter schools as well as other autonomous schools in Colorado. To that end, the organization offers a leadership development program to identify and train leaders for such schools and works to help charter schools thrive through advocacy at the policy level.

“Barbara O’Brien is not only one of Colorado’s most respected education and policy experts, but is nationally known for her work and commitment to early childhood and literacy initiatives,” Sondermann said. “We couldn’t have found a better person to take Get Smart Schools to the next level.”

Get Smart Schools is in the process of expanding into Front Range districts beyond Aurora and Denver and organization leaders believe O’Brien “brings an unparalleled statewide perspective to lead this effort.”

O’Brien said she has recently become interested in the need to focus on the quality of school leadership – principals, assistant principals and lead teachers. And while the first focus will be on those in charter schools, she said she would like to see programs aimed at boosting leadership quality broadened to more traditional public schools as well.

Beyond that, she was reluctant to spell out her vision for Get Smart Schools, where she also served as a founding board member.

“Everything I’ve done had something to do with children and I’ve never predicted a single thing I was going to be doing except that, in some way, improve the health and education of children,” O’Brien said.

In the past year or so, she has worked extensively on third-grade reading, which has proven to be a critical predictor year for students in terms of their future academic success.

“The issue of school leadership – instructional leadership – of a school plays an incredible role in how successful kids in an entire school are,” she said. “I’d like to get my hands dirty in this issue and see what can be done so we can have more kids in good schools with good principals.”

Gov. John Hickenlooper offered a congratulatory message.

“We are fortunate to have these excellent education leaders working to improve student outcomes,” Hickenlooper said. “Barbara’s experience as a children’s advocate will help all Colorado’s children to succeed.”

O’Brien most recently served as a senior fellow at the Piton Foundation. Prior to becoming lieutenant governor in 2007 she spent 16 years leading the Colorado Children’s Campaign, turning it into a leading children’s advocacy and policy organization, according to a Get Smart Schools news release.

“Barbara’s passion for educational excellence and her dedication to improving children’s lives make her a perfect fit for leading Get Smart Schools. Her grace and intelligence will be an enormous benefit to GSS and Colorado’s children,” said Terry Minger, Piton’s president and CEO.

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.