Board members balk at Ferebee's principal selection process

IPS board member Gayle Cosby questioned whether Superintendent Lewis Ferebee's principal selection process included enough community input. (Scott Elliott)

The hiring of two IPS principals was shelved Tuesday as board members questioned whether Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s new approach to selecting school leaders did enough to involve parents.

“My hope … is this would open the door to other schools and parents who have a concern,” said board member Gayle Cosby, one of the objectors, after a long discussion during which she pitched her own ideas to involve community members in the principal selection process.

But other board members said selecting principals is primarily Ferebee’s job.

“I think we all want more parental involvement and community involvement,” board member Sam Odle said. “I think we ought to be data driven. I’d like to see the metrics they’re using to judge themselves to be successful. We’ve got to make sure we hold the superintendent accountable in selecting the right leadership.”

As Ferebee has been working on a new step-by-step process for choosing school leaders,  his major focus has been on exactly what board members were asking for: getting more input from people connected to the schools. He proposed creating feedback panels, which have been put in place already for some searches, composed of a teacher, three other staff and two optional “community stakeholders” to vet principal candidates, with the superintendent having control over the final selection.

“What you see in the policy represents a philosophy of being more inclusive and being more (engaged),” Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said. “Is it perfect? Probably not. I believe we have an opportunity to get this right and we will get it right. We’ll see support we haven’t seen before. We’ll see opportunities we haven’t seen before.”

But the board wanted to go further, voting to mandate that at least one parent be part of each selection panel. They also delayed hiring two proposed principal candidates for Northwest and George Washington high schools so at least one parent at each school would be part of the screening process.

Board member Michael Brown told board members, earning applause from the public audience, that he refused to support the policy if it was not written in stone that parents would be included. He eventually voted for it after the board amended the policy.

“If we don’t get parental buy in, I think we’re saying one thing and doing another,” Brown said, adding later that “for years and years … voices have remained silent because they felt it was falling on deaf ears until we hired a superintended that opened up the door.”

Parents’ feeling about the school matter just as much as test scores and A to F grades, he said.

“You can put a letter grade on any school but how the parents feel their students are doing should have some (input) on how their schools are doing,” Brown said.

Ferebee acknowledged IPS could be better at including parents in the school leadership selection process.

“I think we have some growth opportunities in terms of engaging parents,” Ferebee said. “I think parents should be at the table.”

After the debate, Cosby proposing a resolution specific to George Washington, requiring that its Community Advisory Council be represented in future school leadership decisions at the school. There was no vote on that idea.

Ferebee did not specify a timeline for naming leaders at George Washington and Northwest.

“These are schools that have been struggling,” he said. “It may be that the same individuals will surface. We’re going to do our due diligence. We’d rather take our time and get it right.”

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.