Rumble in the Thunderdome

Tensions erupt at meeting to discuss future of embattled Denver high school

Community frustrations with a lack of control over the fate of Manual High School bubbled over Monday night in a meeting to discuss one proposal for the school’s future.

The district, which signaled its intention to overhaul the school earlier this year when it fired Manual’s principal, put out a call for proposals in March. The model presented Monday, which many felt has already received the district’s approval, would turn the campus over to a ninth grade academy for both neighboring East High School students and those students currently living in the Manual boundary. The campus would also house a career and technical academy for 10th through 12th graders that would continue under the Manual name.

For many in attendance, the changes spelled a drastic move away from the identity of the school, which has played an outsized role in Five Points neighborhood community.

“If I’m a tenth grader and I want to choose Manual, there’s no way to do that,” said Ben Butler, an English teacher at Manual. “I can’t be a Thunderbolt.”

In speech after speech, students urged the district to look beyond the school’s low performance on test scores. The sentiment often echoed the tense conversations that happened when the district abruptly decided to close and re-boot Manual in 2007 as a last-ditch effort to improve the school’s academic performance.

“You can’t break up a family based on a couple numbers,” one student called out.

District officials intended to discuss the proposal with a small group of “thought partners,” who have met for the past two months to discuss a way forward for the embattled high school.

Instead, students, parents, and community members in T-shirts emblazoned with the school’s mascot, a thunderbolt, packed the overheated room and called out their frustrations. The commotion comes on the heels of several months of uneasy relations between the school community and the district, after district officials fired the school’s former principal and and eliminated some aspects of the school’s unique program.

The room frequently erupted with loud applause for those who questioned the district. The moderator hired by the district threatened to kick unruly participants out. Students and non-committee members were discouraged from speaking during the presentation and were told to write their questions on index cards. Instead, they funneled questions through some committee members and called out their support.

Many of the students and parents asked the district to consider the unique community students and staff had built, where students are encouraged to voice their opinions and take leadership roles.

“How many students from other schools would stay when we were told we couldn’t speak [at the meeting] and make ourselves heard?” asked Elijah Huff, a Manual student who comes from a long line of Thunderbolts. “Think about students who are becoming world changers.”

And students in the audience worried that the school would be transformed without their input.

“Why haven’t you asked students what they want changed at Manual?” one student asked. The time for that is later in the process, a district official responded.

The tension in the room reached a breaking point as district officials concluded their presentation. Assistant principal Vernon Jones and a group of students confronted Superintendent Tom Boasberg, criticizing the district for squashing a plan that would have preserved some of the school’s social justice model. Jones claimed district officials discouraged them from submitting it and told a consultant helping them to cease her work.

“I don’t understand why we didn’t get a chance,” Jones said. “We thought we had a chance to self-determine. You took it from us.”

Boasberg promised Jones would have the opportunity to submit a proposal, although many felt the district had already made up its mind about the school’s future.

The career and technical focus for the upper grades, which had received some support from committee members at past meetings, proved to be a flashpoint, with some wondering if it tracked students into vocational pathways.

Parents also critiqued the proposal to send Manual students, who are overwhelmingly black and Latino, to East, which has the second largest achievement gap in the district and a reputation for in-school segregation.

“As a parent of a black and brown student…what’s the carrot?” asked Courtney Torres, a Manual parent and a member of the committee. She and others echoed claims made by school staff that Manual has had success at closing the achievement gap.

Some also proposed an alternate, if unlikely, solution: redraw the boundaries between Manual and East, which are less than two miles apart. Those boundaries, which were redrawn at the end of busing in the ’90s, have proved a sore spot for both communities.

“All of this is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic that you made with the racist boundary,” said one Manual father.

But Boasberg said the district generally avoids redrawing boundaries, due to the disruption to students and families.

“I know it’s going to piss a lot of people off, but so did civil rights legislation,” countered the father.

In the end, many left the meeting dissatisfied with the outcome. While many felt it was an opportunity for students and others to have a voice in the process, some left the meeting frustrated with the combative tone.

“We are still trying to figure out what’s best for Manual,” said Monica Johnson, whose son attends Manual. “Being against each other is not going to solve anything.”

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.