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Klein, Sharpton roll out education coalition du jour

Yesterday, we noted that Chancellor Klein hadn’t signed on to the “Broader, Bolder” platform. Today, we learn that Klein has a coalition and platform of his own. In Washington, D.C., today, Klein and the Reverend Al Sharpton announced the launch of the Education Equality Project, a new campaign to position education as “the civil rights issue of the 21st century” and to challenge politicians and educators to reform schools in a way that puts children’s needs before their own.

Stacked with leaders of ED in 08, an education-focused political action committee, the campaign is clearly intended to influence discussion of education policy in the presidential election. In fact, the project includes members from both political parties and plans to hold forums at both the Democratic and Republican conventions later this summer.

The 15 founding members of the project — more will join shortly, they say — represent a strange set of bedfellows. Klein and two urban superintendents created in his image — Andres Alonso, the former DOE official who now leads the Baltimore schools, and Washington, D.C., chancellor Michelle Rhee — are on the list. But so is Geoffrey Canada, whose Harlem Children’s Zone programs perhaps best approximate a vision of the Broader, Bolder approach in action. Arne Duncan, the reformist superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools, signed onto both agendas. And some of the African-American leaders who have signed on, including Sharpton and radio personality James Mtume, have in the past expressed skepticism about political leaders’ commitment to helping poor children.

The Education Equality Project’s guiding principles are essentially a summary of the DOE’s recent talking points. They call for increased pay and professional development for teachers and principals, and recourse to fire those who don’t perform well; school choice that includes charter school options; and accountability at every level. In addition, the project’s principles take aim at those who they believe make decisions in order to “make people happy” — as Rhee puts it in the DOE’s press release — instead of based on the best interests of children.

The contrast with Broader, Bolder is obvious. Adherents of the Broader, Bolder movement will say that the Education Equality Project promotes shortsighted solutions that cannot possibly equalize educational opportunity; Education Equality proponents think the Broader, Bolder folks are merely offering excuses for failing schools. And where yesterday’s statement couched a moral argument in the language of accountability-driven reform, the Education Equality Project frames a contemporary reformist agenda in starkly moral terms, alluding repeatedly to the civil rights movement. “It took our country 165 years to conclude that, under our Constitution, separate isn’t equal in education, but, still, 54 years after Brown v. Board of Education, too often our schools fail our highest needs students,” Klein said in the press release. “We need to get serious about giving all children the education they need to succeed. It won’t be easy—the status quo has lots of defenders—but it can be done and it is absolutely essential that we do it.”

With its roster of activist superintendents espousing specific policy remedies that have already gained traction in many districts, including in New York City, the Education Equality Project is poised to influence national politics this year. If it does, several undercurrents of its agenda are worth monitoring. First, the campaign appears to use the past to justify the implicit attack on organized labor contained in its agenda, saying, “As the civil rights movement itself makes clear, such transformations inevitably generate resistance and political conflict.” In addition, the project’s call for “an honest and forthright conversation about the root causes of this national failure” rings hollow given that its leaders aren’t willing to contemplate the possibly that the causes of national educational failure may have their roots outside of the schoolhouse doors. Finally, we should consider the possibility that the two coalitions rolled out this week present approaches that are not mutually exclusive; perhaps there is room for a middle path toward improved academic achievement.

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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.