New York

Are "culturally focused" schools worth watching?

Today, the Daily News reported that backers of a proposed charter school that would focus on Hebrew language and culture have already ruled out the possibility of trying to secure space in a public school building. Most charter schools in the city are housed in existing DOE buildings, but as the DOE has opened more and more schools, both charter and non-charter, existing public schools have put up battles over having to share space. Any charter school operators with the financial wherewithal to contract their own space would eliminate some headache by doing so.

In addition, backers of the Hebrew-language school are surely thinking already about how to avoid the problems that have plagued the Khalil Gibran International Academy since before that school opened in 2007. The two schools with which the DOE assigned Khalil Gibran, an Arabic-themed non-charter middle school in Brooklyn, to share space put up a serious fight, with some opponents veiling their racism only thinly or not at all. This fall, Khalil Gibran is being moved to a different school — PS 287, an elementary school with declining enrollment near the Brooklyn Navy Yard — and the antagonism resurfaced briefly. All of this commotion was no doubt distracting from the already difficult tasks of teaching and learning.

On the other hand, intentionally isolating the proposed school from existing schools heightens the impression that the school presents no church-state conflicts. In fact, the expansion of themed schools in New York and elsewhere has created situations where the line between church and state can appear blurred. In Minnesota, the state department of education recently investigated the Tarek ibn Ziyad Charter Academy, which has many Muslim students, and found that it “generally complied” with federal rules about the separation of church and state. The Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune recently ran the transcript of an illuminating discussion among several charter school operators from the Twin Cities area, where a vibrant charter school culture includes several schools that serve students of predominantly one religious or ethnic group. In the discussion, charter school operators describe how they negotiate the line between teaching religion and teaching about religion. They also expound on their thoughts about the benefits of educational environments centered around a particular culture.

Said the operator of Friends of Ascension charter schools, which launched in a Catholic church with a “classical curriculum”:

With regard to segregation, if a school were established with a Western European focus, that would create an outcry. But there is no denying the achievement gap involving students of color. Research indicates that single-gender schools improve academic results. Similarly, results of culturally focused schools are worth watching. If they eliminate or reduce the achievement gap, who would say that’s not a great thing? …

Saying that “culturally focused schools” — here, clearly a euphemism for “culturally segregated,” given the contrast with single-gender schools mentioned immediately before — are “worth watching” is appealing, but it isn’t supported by evidence. In fact, all of the evidence we have shows that schools that are segregated by race and class are associated with a number of negative outcomes for students, both educational and non-academic. Themed and charter schools are often successful in generating high test scores (although the chaos at Khalil Gibran in its first year suggests high test scores may be unlikely there). But it’s hard to extrapolate from that that the schools’ cultural themes actually contributed to their success. Without careful evaluation of what leads to success in “culturally focused schools,” it’s possible for them to be used as a screen for those who prefer to see schools remain racially, culturally, and economically segregated.

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.