Colorado

Special Report: The struggles of Steel City’s turnaround

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Roncalli Middle School work on a robotics project in April. Part of the district's strategy to improve the state's lowest-performing school in the state was to implement a STEM curriculum.

A third of the public schools in Pueblo are failing.

And if the district doesn’t improve its students’ academic performance soon, the small southern Colorado city could pose the first big test of the state’s school accountability system, which gives struggling schools and districts five years to improve or face sanctions.

The district, which enrolls nearly 18,000 students, is the largest in the state to near the end of that timeline. Unless Pueblo’s most recent test scores reflect significant gains, officials will have just a year to get the district into the state’s safe zone.

If they fall short, the next steps are uncertain, fueling the anxiety of Pubelo’s educators and parents. Colorado law requires state officials to strip the district of its accreditation, which could leave graduating students ineligible for college scholarships. The district could also lose significant amounts of federal funding.

Julianne Williamson spreads out her children's academic awards from the Bessemer Academy in her living room in Pueblo. With her are her children Trinity, who will enter kindergarten this upcoming school year, Jacob, a third grader, and Ryane.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Julianne Williamson spreads out her children’s academic awards from the Bessemer Academy in her living room in Pueblo. With her are her children Trinity, who will enter kindergarten this upcoming school year, Jacob, a third grader, and Ryane.

Part 1: As the state’s accountability clock ticks down, a district struggles to move forward

There’s little carpet visible in the modest living room of the row house in the shadow of Pueblo’s steel mill after Julianne Williamson spreads out all of her children’s academic awards. “My daughter is so smart,” said Williamson, the mother of a sixth-grade daughter and third-grade son at the city’s Bessemer Academy. “She’s going to be outsmarting me soon. My son, he reads like an adult.” But recently, Williamson’s children haven’t been bringing home awards as often, and she’s worried that the school’s chaotic environment might be hurting their learning. The list of questions she has for Pueblo’s school officials is growing long. Among them: “What’s going to happen to my kids?” she asked.

Students at the Pueblo Academy of Arts participate in a science lesson in April. The middle school, formerly known as Pitts, was once considered toxic — like five of the city's other middle schools.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garica
Students at the Pueblo Academy of Arts participate in a science lesson in April. The middle school, formerly known as Pitts, was once considered toxic — like five of the city’s other middle schools.

Part 2: Cascading middle school crises at center of Pueblo’s challenge

This small city’s middle schools have been a blight on its school district, Pueblo City Schools, for years. Even before the state updated how it identifies and tracks failing schools in 2010, it was clear that improving those schools was the district’s biggest challenge. Despite a renewed focus on the schools, today much of the district’s struggles to lift itself out of the red zone in the state’s accountability system can be traced to the dismal state of its middle schools. Three of the city’s six middle schools are on the state’s accountability watch list, including Roncalli, which is now the lowest-performing middle school in the state.

Students at the Chaves Huerta K-12 Preparatory Academy, a charter school, read at the beginning of class. Pueblo parents don't appear to be interested in taking advantage of the city's two high-performing middle schools.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at the Chaves Huerta K-12 Preparatory Academy, a charter school, read at the beginning of class. Pueblo parents don’t appear to be interested in taking advantage of the city’s two high-performing middle schools.

Part 3: Facing a leadership transition and a looming deadline, an uncertain future for Pueblo

While the Pueblo school system has gotten better since Pueblo’s outgoing superintendent Maggie Lopez arrived, it has not improved enough to escape the watchful eye of state officials, who are required by law to intervene if the district does not post significant gains. And now Lopez is handing off her responsibilities to a new leader, who may be charged with boosting student test scores significantly during her very first year. The handoff of responsibilities from Lopez to Florida educator Constance Jones has highlighted the uncertainty that many Puebloans feel as officials stare down an extremely tight deadline — an uncertainty that’s been compounded by a lack of clarity around exactly what state intervention, which few in Pueblo would welcome, would look like if the city schools fail to pick themselves up.

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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.