educational intervention

In Washington Heights, a basic education on charter schools

Last December, Community Board 12’s executive committee was discussing charter schools when committee members realized something: There were almost as many different perceptions of  charter schools as there were people in the room.

This epiphany, recalled board chair Pamela Palanque-North, was the inspiration for a forum the board held Saturday to give Washington Heights residents the basic facts about charter schools.

“This is an opportunity for us to have something called an educational intervention,” Palanque-North said in her opening remarks at the forum, titled “Our Children, Our Choices: An Informative Discussion on Public and Charter School Options.” About 35 neighborhood residents attended the event, which was organized by the board’s youth and education committee and translated live into Spanish.

The panel included charter school advocates and also critics, such as sociologist Pedro Noguera and the public school teacher who directed a new movie that takes aim at the idea that charter schools can fix all educational ills.

But perhaps as notable as who sat on the panel was who did not: a representative from the city Department of Education. Community Board 12 had advertised that Chancellor Dennis Walcott would speak on the morning’s first panel, although DOE officials said Walcott had never agreed to appear.

“Unfortunately this group claimed the chancellor would be attending this event — and put his name on a flier — without our consent or any confirmation,” said Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld, a DOE spokesman. “When we finally were able to get in touch, we informed Community Board 12 that Chancellor Walcott was already committed to attending a science and math festival in Harlem that day and would be unable to attend.” Indeed, Walcott told state senators today that he attended a science fair on Saturday.

William Stanford Jr. was among those disappointed with the absence of DOE officials.

“He couldn’t make it. OK. Where are his employees?” Stanford asked after the discussion. “One of them should have been here.”

Had department representatives been at the Russ Barrie Pavilion, they would have witnessed a comprehensive and often contentious discussion that touched on issues including the consequences of co-location — in which charter and public schools share space; the degree of accountability for the schools when it comes to serving special-needs students and English Language Learners; the level of parental input in charters; and the relationship between charter schools and their surrounding communities.

James Merriman, CEO of the NYC Charter School Center, said charters existed in order to give parents the choice to send their children to schools that were of a higher quality and less impacted by bureaucracy and unions than the public school system.

But Julie Cavanaugh, a public school teacher in Red Hook, Brooklyn and director of the film “The Inconvenient Truth About Waiting for Superman,” said charter schools often leave public school students with no choice. She said the practice of charter schools moving into existing public school buildings had forced public school students into unequal, inadequate, and even hazardous learning conditions.

In fact, concerns over inequities was one theme of Saturday’s forum. Noguera, executive director of NYU’s Metropolitan Center for Urban education, alluded in his remarks to GothamSchools’ recent exclusive about illegal admissions practices at Academic Leadership, a charter school in the South Bronx: Noguera said some charter schools are illegally screening students, then mentioned an “interesting article” he had read about the practice at a charter school in the Bronx.

When I asked him to elaborate on these remarks after his presentation, Noguera said he was unfamiliar with the specifics of Academic Leadership but called for more scrutiny of charter schools’ admission practices.

“It really concerns me when I see that there’s some evidence that some of the charters are screening kids and have adopted measures to either screen or to push out students that are more challenging to serve,” Noguera said. “Because it’s creating this very unequal playing field between the charters and the public schools. So I think that the authorizers and the state need to be more vigilant in holding those schools accountable.”

Merriman expressed support for parent involvement but suggested it was less important than the quality of education children receive.  He also argued that parents did not have a great deal of ability to impact public school policies.

But Mona Davids, executive director of the New York Charter Parents Association, argued parent input in charter schools was essential.

“How can any school not have a parent association?” she asked.

Raybblin Vargas, assistant chair of Community Board 12’s Youth and Education Committee, expressed enthusiasm for the discussion.

“I am very very very happy with the panelists that did show up and did speak,” she said. “I think that we were able to have a broad spectrum of perspectives.”

Audience members, too, seemed to come to the forum with a variety of viewpoints, questions, and concerns.

Ronnette Summers is a parent whose daughter attends KIPP NYC College Prep High School in the Bronx and her son attends KIPP STAR Middle School in Harlem, both charter schools. Summers said she thinks the public harbors many misconceptions about charter schools.

“They don’t have parent associations, they don’t have ELL students, they don’t care about parents, they don’t want parents in the building,” Summers said, characterizing what she felt were unfair generalizations about charters. “I know for a fact that in my school that is not the case. I could walk in my school at any time and sit in the classroom without making an appointment.”

But Andrea Lieske, the parent of a kindergartener at P.S. 125 in Harlem, said she was worried about the proliferation of charter schools in District 5.

“There are a lot — a lot — of charter schools, and I am afraid that the charter schools are sort of taking over and there is not much choice in terms of other public schools,” she said.

Lieske said she was specifically concerned about charter schools’ approach to education.

“Seemingly most of the charter schools — at least in District 5 — are not very much into the progressive approach of teaching,” she said. “They are more, ‘they have to know this,’ and the long school day, things like that.”

Questions from the audience — many of which were addressed to Susan Miller Barker, interim executive director of the SUNY Charter Schools Institute — touched on topics including the sharing of best practices between charter and traditional public schools and the ways charter schools are held accountable for serving special-needs and students who are learning English.

In her closing remarks, Palanque-North said she hoped to make the discussion an annual occurrence.

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.