Sticker shock

A Colorado mom asked for records about her son. The school district billed her $567.

Connie Sack was stunned when she received two invoices from the Keenesburg school district after asking to inspect records regarding her 16-year-old son, Logan.

The fee for research and retrieval: $438. The fee for copies: $129. Total charges: $567.

“Four hundred dollars is basically the budget we have for his school clothes and supplies every year,” Sack said. “To pay that just to view his education records seems ridiculous.”

Sack made the request under the Family Rights Education and Privacy Act (FERPA). The federal law protects the privacy of students’ education records but also affords parents and students the right to access those records.

Under the law, schools must let parents and students inspect education records within 45 days of a request and “may not charge for search and retrieval of information from education records,” according to a statement provided by Dorie Turner Nolt, press secretary for the U.S. Department of Education.

Logan Sack
Logan Sack

A school is not obliged to provide copies unless “circumstances effectively prevent a parent from exercising his or her right to inspect and review education records,” such as if a parent lived far away from the school. But if copies are provided, the fee must not be “prohibitive.”

The invoices from Weld County School District Re-3J in Keenesburg break down like this: The first hour of research and retrieval was free but another 14.6 hours were billed at $30 per hour. The district charged 25 cents per page for 516 copies.

The charges are in line with those authorized in the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA). But Sack made the request under FERPA, not CORA.

CORA’s research-and-retrieval charges don’t apply because a parent’s entitlement to inspect the records arises under the federal statute, not the state statute, said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C.

“They definitely don’t get to do that,” he said. “…I would absolutely push back on that one.”

Meleia Monsey, executive area administrative specialist for the Keenesburg school district, acknowledged that FERPA allows parents to view their students’ education records at no charge. But she makes a distinction between records kept in a student’s cumulative file – such as report cards, transcripts, test scores and Individualized Education Programs – and other records such as emails that concern a student.

She said a parent is welcome anytime to view his or her child’s cumulative file at a school, but records such as emails must be reviewed and redacted to protect the privacy of other students who are named. “Those are not considered part of the student’s educational record,” Monsey said, and therefore are subject to research-and-retrieval charges outlined in a school district policy.

LoMonte disputes that interpretation. “Neither the FERPA statute nor regulation contemplates any fee for search, retrieval or redaction, and charging for those ‘services’ goes against the intent of FERPA to make those records freely available,” he wrote in an email to the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.

The U.S. Department of Education defines “education records” to mean records “directly related to a student” which are maintained by or for a school. What that means exactly never has been conclusively determined, according to LoMonte, but “it has generally been the position of schools that ‘directly related’ includes any record in which a student is named or identifiable.”

A class attendance sheet, for example, is not a record of any particular student and will not appear in any particular student’s file in the school office. “Nonetheless,” LoMonte wrote, “the school undoubtedly would take the position that an attendance sheet is a FERPA record if a requester sought access to it.

“Once something is a FERPA record for privacy, it must necessarily be a FERPA record for disclosure.”

Sack said she used a nonprofit’s template to make a broad request under FERPA for Logan’s records, and the school district never gave her the opportunity to narrow the request to make it less expensive. “But now that I know there are 516 pages on my son, I need to see what’s in that file.”

Sack originally asked to inspect the records for several reasons, she said, which include helping Logan challenge a school committee’s decision to reject his application for National Honor Society admission. Logan, who recently finished his sophomore year at Weld Central High School, runs his own technology company and umpires baseball games.

“One thing he wants to do is send part of his educational records to the national level of NHS,” Sack said.

The CFOIC asked spokespersons for the Jefferson County, Denver and Cherry Creek school districts if they had charged parents to research, retrieve and redact student records. Each said they had not done so.

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.