In Denver, Duncan promotes preschool expansion and K-12 tax measure

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan greets attendees at a town hall on early education in Denver.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan greets attendees at a town hall on early education in Denver.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Friday asked Colorado voters to support President Barack Obama’s attempt to expand access to early-childhood education and endorsed efforts here to pass a $950 million tax increase to overhaul the state’s school financing system.

“I desperately hope it moves forward,” Duncan said of the proposed tax increase, which voters will accept or reject in November.

The education secretary described the choice facing Colorado voters as reflective of a “fundamental tension” underlying much of the debate over education spending nationally. “Do we believe in education as an investment, or as an expense?” he said.

Some critics of the education tax measure worry that pouring more money into the education system does little to ensure that it will improve. But Duncan characterized the changes in funding structure that would accompany the tax increase as a smart investment.

“I will never support simply investing in the status quo,” Duncan said. Rather, he described the changes prescribed in the state’s accompanying school finance reform bill, such as increasing funding to districts that serve greater concentrations of students in poverty or learning English, as potentially transformative to the state’s educational system.

“The implications [of the funding overhaul] are truly national,” he said.

Duncan’s stop in Denver was part of his effort to sell the Obama administration’s pre-school expansion plan and also to spotlight state and national attempts to expand college access and affordability. His first stop of the day was at Clayton Early Learning, where he toured early childhood facilities and, along with Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia and others, held a town hall meeting on the president’s plan. Duncan then visited Escuela Tlatelolco, where he was joined by Garcia as well as U. S. Senator Michael Bennet and Gov. John Hickenlooper for a second town hall meeting on college access and affordability, especially for Hispanic students.

Precise details of the administration’s preschool plan aren’t yet known, but Duncan emphasized that the federal Department of Education would be partnering with state and local governments to scale up programs that have been shown to succeed.

“For me, the key to all of this is really just partnership,” he said.

Duncan compared the proposal to the administration’s Race to the Top program, though he noted that there are no plans for states to compete for funding. The proposal does include plans to incentivize states to adopt full-day kindergarten policies. The Obama administration’s education policies and strategy of spurring states to adopt them through incentives have been hailed in some quarters for driving much-needed action and decried in others as unwarranted federal intrusion on local decision-making.

Early estimates of Colorado’s share of the president’s budget request, should the proposal move forward and the state choose to participate, say that Colorado would receive nearly $42 million in the program’s first year, which, combined with a smaller state match, would provide more than 5,000 low- and middle-income children with preschool services. Similarly, the administration’s proposal would send Colorado more than $7 million to expand home visits from nurses, social workers, and other education professionals to low-income families to promote healthy child development and early learning.

And while Duncan spoke to the Denver audiences, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a Republican-written re-write of the No Child Left Behind law that hands much school oversight currently held by the federal government to states and significantly cuts federal education funding. Obama has threatened to veto the House version if it moves forward and, speaking to reporters after the town halls, Duncan characterized the bill as “not a real thing.”

Bennet said that he anticipated the Senate would put forth a much different version of the federal education bill rewrite and also characterized the House version as political grandstanding.

“It was a political exercise as much as anything else,” Bennet 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.