The scoop

DOE dropping school closure plan that drew UFT, parent lawsuit

The Department of Education is dropping its bid to close three zoned elementary schools and replace them with charter schools, GothamSchools has learned.

School officials informed the schools today about their uncharacteristic about face, which comes a week after the teachers union and a group of parents sued the DOE on the grounds that the plan to close the elementary schools represented an illegal alteration of zone lines.

The three schools, PS 241 and PS 194 in Harlem and PS 150 in Brownsville, will enroll new students in the fall, John White, director of the department’s portfolio office, confirmed. The DOE will phase out middle school grades at PS 241 and PS 150 as planned, White said, because the districts where those schools are located do not have zoned middle schools.

White emphasized that parents will still be able to choose to send their children to charter schools. All of the charter schools that were supposed to replace the zoned elementary schools will continue to expand inside DOE space, he said. The charter schools will either share space with the existing elementary schools, as in the case of PS 150, which is getting two schools that are part of the Uncommon Schools network, or they will remain in their current spaces. The latter option is possible for Harlem Success Academy 2, which is currently located inside PS 123.

White said the department made its decision because the lawsuit left parents unsure of which schools would be open next year. “Rather than continue to confuse them through this lawsuit, which is hanging over the process, we know that they will be given all of these options choose the one that will be best for them,” he said.

Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell, who represents Manhattan and had criticized the department’s decision to shutter the schools, said he was pleased to hear the news from Micah Lasher, the department’s chief lobbyist, in a voice message today. He said he suspects politics played a role in the decision. “Obviously there’s a mayoral election this year and the question of mayoral control before the state legislature – those are not the best circumstances to be losing a lawsuit about notification of parental involvement,” O’Donnell said in a phone interview.

Jennifer Freeman, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said an elected official involved in the case told her today that the zoned school in her district, PS 241 in Harlem, would not close as was announced in December. She said she is concerned that the schools could still share space with charter schools.

“As far as we’re concerned, that’s still problematic,” Freeman said, because the DOE did not involve the elected parent council in the decision to site the school there, she said. She said her purpose in joining the lawsuit was to push the DOE to follow state laws requiring community input in decisions about school siting and other matters.

“To stop something that is clearly illegal feels good,” Freeman said. “But as far as the overall direction of giving more voice to communities, it’s just a little baby step.”

White emphasized the point that originally led the department to close the zoned schools: More students who live in the schools’ zones already choose to attend charter schools than the existing public schools. He said that only seven kindergartners from the zone enrolled at PS 241 in Harlem this year, whereas Harlem Success Academy, which was slated to replace PS 241, has already received applications from four times that number of children who live in the zone.

UPDATE: Union president Randi Weingarten, a plaintiff in the case, told me in an interview this evening that she is pleased with the decision. “The bottom line is that the school system has the obligation to provide a public school, not just a public charter school, but a public school that a kid is entitled to go to – not that a kid has a lottery to go to but that a kid is entitled to go to,” she said.

CORRECTION: The original version of this post incorrectly identified the school that had only seven kindergarteners enroll this year. The school is PS 241.

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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.