October count looms over flood-hit districts

Flood-impacted districts across the state are scrambling to get their students back in classrooms as they face the looming October date when their enrollment is measured for the purpose of state funding.

Larimer County evacuees board school buses. (Photo credit: Wyoming National Guard)
Larimer County evacuees board school buses. (Photo credit: Wyoming National Guard)

In Boulder Valley School District (BVSD), where some school facilities were destroyed or totally cut off, the district is hoping for some flexibility from the Colorado Department of Education (CDE).

“We’ve been told that for impacted students, there will be some leeway granted,” said Briggs Gamblin, BVSD’s communications director.

At a meeting Monday with eight superintendents from impacted districts, Colorado Commissioner of Education Robert Hammond and Sen. Michael Bennett discussed the issue of the October count.

The CDE allows a few modifications of the Oct. 1 count day. Those include selecting an alternate count day or counting students who were in school for five days on either side of Oct. 1 but not on the day itself. Districts may also count students who were in attendance prior to Oct. 1 and then subsequently absent, but only if they return within 30 days. State officials are also looking into the possibility of a “retroactive” count day, in other words using the number of students in attendance on some date prior to flooding.

In the meantime, districts are using their available resources to add bus routes for students who lack transportation, to provide clothes and school supplies for students who need them and locate students whose whereabouts are still unknown to their home school.

Getting to school

Some districts are trying to get their students back in school by removing one of the biggest barriers: transportation.

In Boulder, where flooding trapped students living up many of the nearby canyons, the district has opened the mountain schools. For those students who do not attend school in Boulder, they are back in class, same as usual. For students who live near Nederland but who attend school in Boulder, the district has provided a shuttle down to town. The drive takes about two hours each way, since buses have to travel via Golden to avoid washed-out roads.

“That’s a lot of time on the bus and we don’t really know if it’s going to work,” said Gamblin.

So the district is considering some alternatives, including sending classroom materials over the internet.

“Some parents are asking for something online where teachers can send instruction and work to students,” said Gamblin.

In Jamestown, where the school building is completely unreachable, the district has brought the classroom to its students. For 11 students who were trapped in a Jamestown subdivision during flooding, the district has set up a classroom right at home.

“Eleven [Jamestown students] live in a mountain subdivision called Bar K ranch and one of their teachers lives up in Ward,” said Gamblin. “So the teacher and a classroom [paraprofessional] are going to teach them there.”

The other 12 Jamestown students stranded in Boulder are having class too, in a designated classroom at Community Montessori.

Greeley, like many other districts, has increased bus service to neighborhoods where displaced students or students whose family lost their method of transport are living.

“We’ve created little hubs in different neighborhoods to pick up students and get them to their home schools,” said Theresa Myers, the director of communication for the Greeley 6 school district. Even so, she said, “some students are getting to school a little bit late.”

However, the increased bus routes are draining the district’s resources, which may impact their academic plans for the year.

“It’s draining our resources immensely,” said Myers. “Basically all of our Title I funds are gone. We’ve been very lucky to get donations from the public.”

Estes Park, on the other hand, is busing fewer students.

“We’re actually doing less busing because some roads are still closed,” said Patrick Hickey, Estes Park School District R-3’s superintendent. “We’re putting more students on few buses.”

Students who are trapped on the the other side of closed roads are going to great lengths to get to school, according to Hickey.

“Students are walking to get out to where the school bus is,” said Hickey. “People are going to some pretty extraordinary efforts to get in.”

Some hard-hit districts aren’t seeing heavy impacts on their schools. St. Vrain School District, which includes the washed-out town of Lyons, has seen no significant absenteeism or loss of students.

“Our Lyons schools had a lot of displaced students,” said John Poynton, executive director of communications for the school district. “[But] we have not seen any dramatic exodus. That’s a very tight knit community and school.”

Lyons students are currently attending class in Longmont, where a lot of families are in temporary housing.

Locating students

Even in districts where school buildings are intact, staff are struggling to locate displaced students who may not have returned to their home school or may not have a permanent place to stay.

In Greeley, the district’s facilities escaped without any physical damage, but nearly 800 students are now officially homeless. That’s up from 131 homeless students prior to flooding.

The resulting impact on attendance has been dramatic.

“We’ve had a definite rise in absences,” said Myers. “The problem is that it fluctuates every day because people don’t have a permanent housing solution.”

In the past week, Greeley has recorded rates of absenteeism as high as 1,100 students in a single day, more than double the typical rate. With count day looming, Myers said the district’s primary goal is to locate all the kids, whether they are in their original school or not.

“We’ve emphasized for our principals and teachers that their primary goal over the next week is to find their kids, wherever they are,” said Myers. The district is also working to provide clothes and school supplies to now-homeless students.

Both Greeley and Estes Park are facing the possibility that students may be leaving the district, due to the loss of homes or family employment

“We’ve had 30 [students] that have dis-enrolled,” said Hickey. Attendance in his district is near normal levels, although Hickey anticipates using one of the CDE’s alternative October count strategies.

Poudre Valley School District in Fort Collins has not seen any impacts on its students, although staff are on the lookout for families transferring from other districts. Few have so far, said a spokesman for the district.

For Hickey, getting his district’s back into a normal school routine is about more than the October count.

“We’re pushing really hard to get them back to a sense of normalcy,” he said. “Getting these kids together and talking and sharing experiences is a positive side of it.”

Myers agreed, saying that once kids are back in the classroom, they’ll find school is just the same.

“Once you get in to the schools, you wouldn’t know anything is different,” she said.

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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.