Music cutbacks at some IPS schools anger parents

Erin Szalkie’s sixth-grade son James was upset when she dropped him off at school this morning, having just learned that the orchestra program he loves at Indianapolis Public Schools’ Center for Inquiry at School 84 would be cut next year.

Whether the fledgling violinist would continue to learn to play his instrument was suddenly in doubt.

School 84 is one of a handful of IPS elementary schools that would stop offering instrumental music lessons next year as part of a district-wide overhaul of music, art and gym programs aimed at making sure all schools get a full-time teacher in each of those subjects.

But to add full-time teachers at some schools that have only part-time teachers in those subjects, other schools might lose extras, like lessons for kids who play band and orchestra instruments.

Szalkie and others say they learned of the plan from teachers or through Facebook friends, not directly from the district, and they’re angry.

“These programs don’t belong to the school board, they belong to the kids,” Szalkie said. “To have no communication, no explanation and no opportunity to say ‘maybe there’s something else we can do’ … is disappointing.”

If the changes are put in place, each elementary school would have one full-time music teacher. In the past, some schools had a part-time music teacher while others had both a general music teacher and a part-time instrumental music teacher.

Most of IPS’s 48 elementary schools probably won’t notice a change. For many, it might only will mean a music teacher spending a few more hours at school. But for 12 schools, including the Centers for Inquiry, it means fewer teachers.

“The goal is to create a more equitable system where each school has at least one dedicated, full-time music educator,” IPS spokeswoman Kristin Cutler said. “The current system involves many shared educators between several schools.”

The move was also designed to give principals more choice in how to assign staff at their buildings. IPS school board members have made repeated calls for principals to make more choices about how they run their schools.

Schools with high enrollment will have an additional “special area” teacher. Principals can choose what they want that teacher to teach. The also can decide whether the school’s one music teacher will specialize in general music or instrumental music.

Not every music teacher is licensed in both general music and instrumental music. It’s an “incredibly rare skill set” to have both, Szalkie said. Her school principal was left with little choice but to cut the orchestra program. Others probably will face the same difficult choice.

“You’re going to have a general program for every kid,” Szalkie said. “If you’re saying you have the choice, their hands are tied. They have to make a decision that meets every grade level, every kid. It’s not really a choice.”

School board member Gayle Cosby said she was unhappy with the decision. School autonomy should result in more program choices for schools and kids, not fewer, she said.

“We all know that parents base school decisions off of these kinds of offerings,” Cosby said. “Here we are again, making decisions about autonomy without a full understanding of autonomy as a board. I’m concerned that we are once again putting the cart before the horse.”

Szalkie’s son said he wants to take action to protest the decision. Now his mom just has to figure out if she can find a way for him to have lessons outside of school next year.

“He’s planning to start his letter writing camping tonight,” Szalkie said. “I said, ‘You’re old enough. If you don’t agree with what they’re doing, stand up and say something.'”

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.