Three questions that will dominate this year's school news

To some, it may seem that there’s no way this year can be more exciting than 2008, with its protracted campaigns and historic presidential election. But with questions about governance, leadership, and funding looming large, 2009 promises to be quite the year in the New York City education world.

Here are three big questions that will be answered, at least in part, in the next 12 months:

  • What will happen to mayoral control? The law giving New York City’s mayor full control of the schools expires at the end of June. Before then, the State Assembly must decide whether to renew the law, alter it, or let the city’s schools revert back to the way they were organized before 2002.
  • Few in the city are saying that the law should simply be permitted to expire. Many local advocates are instead calling for changes to the law that ensure parent involvement and create an impartial entity to review Department of Education data. State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said recently that he would vote to renew mayoral control if the new law includes changes like these. But some powerful people are lining up behind the mayor’s opposition to any changes, including the editorial board of the Daily News and wealthy New Yorkers who are planning to spend $20 million to support a public relations campaign in favor of mayoral control.

    Assembly members will take public criticism and the city schools’ performance into account when they cast their votes. But politics will also play a role. This brings us to the second question:

  • Is Mayor Bloomberg going to stay or go? This fall, the mayor won the right to run for a third term. So far Bloomberg hasn’t said for sure whether he’ll run, or what party he would represent if he does, but his advisers say his campaign could cost him as much as $100 million, a sum that any opponent would have a hard time matching. That hasn’t stopped a handful of public officials from declaring their intention to run for the office, including Anthony Weiner, a state congressman from Brooklyn and Queens who supports mayoral control, and Comptroller William Thompson, who has been a vocal critic of the DOE.
  • If Bloomberg runs again and is elected, it stands to reason that the city’s school reform agenda of the last seven years will persist at least through 2013. But if he decides to move on, or if he’s defeated, a new mayor will move into City Hall, and a new chancellor could take office inside Tweed Courthouse. In that case, we could see substantial changes in the school system as soon as the beginning of 2010.

  • How will the dismal budget situation affect the city’s schools? No matter who the mayor is and how the schools are run, the city needs to be able to fund the school system. Right now, the economic picture just keeps looking worse and worse. The governor’s proposed state budget cuts more than $600 million from the city schools, and the mayor has called for sizable city cuts as well.  The mayor has said that budget cuts of the magnitude proposed would hit the classroom hard. Will the schools see a return to the dark days of the 1970s, when teachers were laid off and classes swelled in size? Or will they weather the downturn and emerge relatively unscathed? Only time can tell.

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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.