closure season

Struggling Brownsville schools call on DOE for more support

Chancellor Dennis Walcott responds to Terrell Tomer's questions at a town hall meeting in Brownsville, Brooklyn.

Scores of parents, children, and school staff from District 23 packed the auditorium of Brownsville’s P.S. 156 Wednesday to tell Chancellor Dennis Walcott that their schools don’t deserve to be shut down.

The meeting comes at the start of Walcott’s first closure and co-location season as chancellor. Department of Education officials are deciding which schools to close from a shortlist released in September. Decisions are likely to be made by early next month and a public hearing on the closures will take place early in 2012.

Many people speaking out at the meeting came from three schools that are on the shortlist for closure. Community members from two low-performing schools that share a building, the General D. Chappie James Elementary and Middle School of Science, and P.S. 298 protested before the meeting began.

Brownsville’s neighborhood schools have been in the news lately for a host of problems: low test scores; gang violence, when a parent was killed and a student shot outside P.S. 298 two weeks ago; and facilities issues, when P.S. 156 and I.S. 392 were evacuated twice earlier this week after smoke and odors were detected.

But speakers kept the focus of the town hall on the potential district school closures and charter school openings that have been floated for the neighborhood.

Many parents decried a lack of supplies and resources at their schools, saying the schools need more support if they are to serve students in the high-needs neighborhood. Teachers at the Chappie schools said their facilities are run down, classrooms are crowded, and violence among students sometimes makes the teachers fear for their safety. Mavis Yon, a fifth-grade teacher and union leader at P.S. 298, said gang violence wracked the community.

“Why are we not good enough to get computers? To get wi-fi? Why are we not doing these things?” Natasha Capers, whose two sons attend P.S. 298, said during the protest before the meeting. “Because it’s easier to say these children are a failure. District 23 repeatedly gets shortchanged.”

Walcott tread a fine line between defending the DOE’s shortlist of struggling schools that could be closed and cautioning parents that no closure decisions have yet been made.

“As we look at the figures, the schools are just not performing well,” he said. “We have to find constructive ways to improve the school community. I will not put us in a position of hurting our schools in the long run for just responding to you tonight.”

Sue Hackshaw, a parent from the Chappie schools, asked Walcott if he would promise to visit the schools before deciding whether to close them. Walcott responded, “No. I’m not making that commitment,” prompting some audience members to boo and Hackshaw to leave the auditorium.

Diane Jennings, the grandmother of three chldren at P.S. 298, complained that her school is missing a librarian, and therefore should not be blamed for low reading-scores. But Walcott said that was no excuse — particularly as new curriculum standards emphasize nonfiction reading and analytical writing.

“A lot of reading should be taking place in the classroom, and a lot of reading should be taking place in the home,” he said. “What we’re talking about with Common Core is a different type of reading. A library, though important, is not the critical feature. It’s the books, it’s the teaching, the reading at home, and the use of Common Core texts.”

Several attendees also expressed concern that new charter schools would open in the neighborhood, which already has five charter schools.

“Why do you want to shut down schools and open charter schools?” Terrell Tomer, 12, asked at the beginning of the question-and-answer session with Walcott. He said Kings Collegiate Charter School has more Smartboards and computers than his school, the Middle School for Art and Philosophy, creating tensions in the building.

Walcott responded, “It’s not one versus the other. I’m a big believer in giving parents the option to choose.”

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.