New York

Summer Music Camp at the Manhattan School of Music

Desmond Sam and William Guiracoche in rehearsal for the camp musical, Aladdin Jr. <i>Photo by Brian Hatton</i>.
Desmond Sam and William Guiracoche in rehearsal for the camp musical, Aladdin Jr. Photo by Brian Hatton.

First in a series on free summer opportunities for New York City students. Coming soon: The Summer Arts Institute at Stuyvesant High School.

More than 100 middle school students sit scattered throughout an auditorium at the Manhattan School of Music, clapping and cheering as names of students selected to perform in a concert are announced. Joanne Polk, the Dean of MSM’s Precollege Division, shares a funny moment from one of the students concert sign-up sheet. “When I wrote ‘How long is your piece?'” she says, “You wrote, ‘It depends on how musically I play it.'” She finishes the morning announcements with a reminder about “Twin Day” that coming Friday, and the children stream out of the auditorium, many carrying instrument cases.

Musically talented 6th through 9th graders come from public schools all over the city for the Manhattan School of Music’s Summer Music Camp, where they study ensemble performance, music theory, and ear-training, take lessons in their particular discipline, and explore improvisation, conducting, composition, and more through electives. Mornings are for classes; afternoons are for extracurricular activities like marching band, ballroom dance, and acting classes.

Rebecca Charnow, director of MSM’s Young People’s Division, says the camp is an important opportunity for middle school students, whose schools may have cut arts programs due to an increased focus on testing in mathematics and reading.

In the musical theater class, two dozen students rehearse for a performance of “Aladdin.” The energy in the room is infectious; when the teacher announces that they will start at the beginning of the show and work on the first scenes, Asada Alston, a tiny pigtailed girl with a huge voice, jumps up and down excitedly, clapping her hands. When asked about the camp, Alston, a 10-year-old from Queens who idolizes Alicia Keys, says, “You have to learn everything like that!” She snaps her fingers. “I never stop singing at home.”

Cedric Hills, a slight, blond-haired 11-year-old, stands a head shorter than his stage-daughter, Princess Jasmine, but he speaks his lines with all the gravitas of a sultan. Hills, who will enter the 6th grade at Chelsea’s Clinton School for Writers and Artists, says, “I like to show how I can turn from one character to another, like a transformation. I know I’m me, but I can turn into another character.”

Faculty member Karim Merchant and his student Raldy Vargas during a jazz piano lesson.  By Brian Hatton.

This seriousness about the arts is shared by other students at the camp. Raldy Vargas, an advanced piano student and rising 9th grader at Christopher Columbus High School, is noted at the camp for showing up to his audition carrying a keyboard, just in case the school didn’t provide one. During his weekly one-on-one piano lesson, he works on jazz standard “Take the A Train” with teacher Karim Merchant. Merchant pushes him to strive for more accuracy in his playing, modeling how to practice the fingering for short phrases. Later, when Merchant asks what he’d like to work on, Vargas says, “There’s a song on YouTube I want to learn, it’s technically not jazz but….” He begins playing snatches of the piece. Vargas says that he trained himself to transcribe music that he hears.

The camp directors, Polk and Charnow, say many of the students are in large school programs but have had limited opportunities for regular private music lessons; a few are self-taught. The students auditioned for the camp in January and all are at an intermediate or advanced level of musical ability.

The camp has a 97 percent return rate, according to the directors, and some students go on to attend MSM’s pre-college and college programs.

India Carney, a rising sophomore at LaGuardia High School for Music & Art and the Performing Arts, attended the camp for four years and is back as a counselor in training this summer. “The best part of camp is that I’m surrounded by people who do the same thing as me. It’s impossible to come here with a bad attitude.”

Photos courtesy of the Manhattan School of Music.

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.