Three $100,000 fellowship winners named

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Heather Tsavaris, Marlon Llewellyn, Lauren Franklin and Earl Phalen (left to right) were the winners of The Mind Trust's $100,000 innovation school fellowships in 2014.

A charter school developer, an intelligence analyst and an Indianapolis Public Schools principal each get $100,000 and a year off to work on ideas for improving IPS schools.

Last month, The Mind Trust and Mayor Greg Ballard’s office announced they would award three fellowships to spur creation of innovative school designs that IPS could choose from when it considers how to turn around its lowest scoring schools. More than 200 came to informational sessions and 63 applied.

Nine semi-finalists were interviewed and the winners were selected from among four finalists.

The winners were announced today. They are:

  • Earl Martin Phalen and Marlon Llewellyn, who will jointly work to adapt the blended learning model used in the Phalen Leadership Academy charter school.
  • Heather Tsavaris, who was inspired by her work in counter terrorism to create a middle school designed to encourage students to start their own businesses as an alternative to more troubled lifestyles.
  • Lauren Franklin, who as principal helped turn around IPS School 56 from an F to an A. Franklin wants to expand the Montessori program from School 56 so it can be used for a K to 12 school.

Here’s more on the plans each hopes to develop:

A blended learning school

Phalen is a one-time foster child and former Harvard Law School classmate of President Obama who founded an after school mentoring program in Boston. He came to Indiana in 2009 after being selected a Mind Trust “education entrepreneur fellow.”

Earl Martin Phalen
Earl Martin Phalen

From that fellowship, Phalen invented Summer Advantage, a program that aims to help low income children advance, rather than backslide, during summer break. Building on the success of that program, he launched the Phalen Learning Academy and has plans to open nine more Phalen charter schools.

But partnering with Llewellyn, he will aim to adapt the Phalen instructional program so it can be used for a traditional public school.

Marlon Llewellyn
Marlon Llewellyn

“Starting a school up and collaborating with an existing school are two different experiences and skill sets,” he said.

Llewellyn formerly worked in IPS, followed by stints at Fountain Square Academy charter school and working for Tindley Schools, the charter school group, as a dean at Arlington High School, a former IPS school it manages in state takeover.

Blended learning programs teach students through both traditional teacher-led activities and using computer software. Llewellyn in the past was a Summer Advantage principal, overseeing Phalen’s summer program.

“I’ve just seen the blended learning model at work and what Summer Advantage did was truly amazing,” he said.

A K to 12 Montessori school

School 56 is a magnet school, which generally means better performance in IPS. But Franklin’s school is unusually high poverty for a magnet: 84 percent of students come from families poor enough to qualify for free or reduced price lunch. Plus, more than a third of the students receive special education services.

Lauren Franklin
Lauren Franklin

Despite those challenges, the school made a 19 point jump in its ISTEP passing rate over Franklin’s four years at the school, exceeding the state average last year at 78 percent.

Franklin has two ideas she wants to explore: keeping students together for all of their K to 12 schooling experience and expanding Montessori instruction through high school grades.

“There is a family environment there,” she said of the K to 8 student body at School 56. “Why not keep them within the same environment? This is where they feel safe and people meet their needs.”

Although there are few examples of Montessori high schools, Franklin believes the philosophy can be adapted to go beyond middle school grades.

“if we really talk about what’s best for students and how they acquire knowledge, then you are looking at a new way of thinking and teaching,” she said.

Franklin, who attended IPS as a student and has many friends and relatives who go to IPS schools, said she was inspired by the opportunity she saw in the fellowship to improve district schools. Much of her approach, she said, is about building a culture where educators give their all to help kids achieve.

“This is deeply personal for me,” she said. “It’s based on my observations of what kids really need.”

An entrepreneurial middle school

Tsavaris’ story is easily the most unusual of the three winners.

Heather Tsavaris
Heather Tsavaris

She is not an educator. She has no indiana connections. And the Ohio native worked for a decade as an intelligence officer for the U.S. government.

In that role, she worked on counter terrorism, including a stint in the Netherlands. There she worked to understand how terrorist groups try to appeal to minority Turkish and Morrocan communities.

Oftentimes, it was about offering young people a way out of lives that felt like they were leading nowhere.

“They felt a lack of empowerment,” she said. “Terrorist groups had a message of empowerment: ‘You can make a difference, you can be important and you can do something.’ It changed something for these kids.”

But at the other end of the spectrum were those who went on to succeed despite the challenges of living as minorities in a foreign country. Many of them were entrepreneurs. They empowered themselves through good ideas and hard work.

“They were the secret heroes in the communities, the entrepreneurs,” she said. “They changed themselves and, in the process, changed the community.”

It made Tsavaris think of her own father, a Greek immigrant who came to the U.S. at age 15 unable to speak English and now is a successful restauranteur.

“So much of what we are as a country is about problem solving and self reliance,” she said. “This is such an amazing opportunity to bring entrepreneurial thinking to kids.”

Tsavaris acknowledges her concept is unfinished. In fact, she asked the fellowship committee for permission to develop her idea over two years, while the others are aiming to be ready to start managing schools in 2015.

She thinks middle school is the right age to target and hopes to adapt an entrepreneurial training program she developed for kids to be the basis of the school’s curriculum.

“I know I have a lot of work to do,” she said. “I’ve not been in a traditional school. I have a lot to learn. Part of that is finding the right team.”

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.