space invaders

As public schools protest land deal, a college counterdemonstrates

JREC supporters
JREC supporters at yesterday's demonstration

What was planned as a choreographed demonstration turned into a showdown in front of Tweed Courthouse yesterday between supporters of an Upper East Side school complex and backers of the construction project that would displace it.

Now 13 years old, Julia Richman Education Complex was one of the first school complexes in the city to hold multiple small schools, and its well-publicized successes with struggling students made it a model for the Department of Education’s efforts to break down many large high schools.

But for the last two years, JREC community members have been fighting a complicated real estate deal that would require it to relocate.

The president of nearby Hunter College, Jennifer Raab, wants to tear down JREC and erect a massive science building in its place. In exchange, Hunter would make sure JREC gets a new and improved building — but it would be more than 40 blocks south. Parents, teachers, and students from the six schools in the building, which include schools for autistic children and immigrant teenagers, say relocating JREC would undermine the community that has been cultivated there.

DOE officials have said they’re interested in Raab’s proposal, provided that the new school really does come at no cost to the city. Yesterday, members of the Campaign to Save JREC arrived at DOE headquarters to present a petition against the move with so many signatures that it stretched from the sidewalk, up the front stairs, to the front door and beyond.

They were surprised, leader Jane Hirschmann told me, to find a sizable group of teenagers and Hunter College faculty with signs of their own supporting the new science facility.

The two groups exchanged shouts, with teens from JREC shouting, “2, 4, 6, 8 — Children first, not real estate,” and science building supporters trying to drown them out with chants of their own. Many of the Hunter supporters were not Hunter College students but actually high schoolers from the Upper West Side’s college-supported Hunter/Manhattan Science High School.

No one, including JREC’s backers, disputes Hunter’s need for a new science building. Gail Scovell, Hunter’s lawyer, told me that the school’s research grants are in jeopardy because its facilities are considered sub-par. And this fall, she said, the school didn’t have enough room to let sophomore take organic chemistry, required for admission to medical school.

But JREC supporters say the college should use its own land downtown for a new science building, instead of trying to move JREC there.

A fact sheet the college distributed at the rally argues that a science building uptown would allow cross-pollination between the sciences and liberals arts at Hunter. Faculty members also told me that students don’t like traveling downtown for their science classes.

Wendy Selnick, a 1977 graduate of Hunter’s nursing program who lives across the street from JREC and came to the rally to support the complex, said she found the commuting argument spurious. “Tens of thousands of nurses have made the trip,” she said.

Donna Nevel, a member of the campaign’s steering committee, said the DOE’s interest in the Hunter deal defied logic. “JREC is a complex of schools that really are serving all kids,” Nevel told me. “A school like that should be celebrated instead of destroyed.”

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.