edu-tourism

City schools tour aims to spur democratic education elsewhere

iSchool students taking part in a Model United Nations class that the IDEA tour visited

Ammerah Saidi, a program coordinator with Detroit Future Schools, meandered in and out of classrooms in the iSchool one morning last week. She had her pick of classes to observe – classes such as “Sixteen,” a course designed around the question of what it means to be 16 in New York City, and Cartography, where students creatively mapped their hearts and fictional worlds.

Saidi was one of nearly 30 educators, advocates, and consultants from across the country and world taking part in a two-day, three-borough tour of schools and programs that promote democratic education.

“To hear about student-centeredness is one thing, but to feel it is something different,” Saidi said later in the day. “I love being reminded that it should be about the students at all times.”

That getting up close and personal with democratic modes of schooling is likely to inspire educators to change their practice is the theory behind the Institute for Democratic Education in America‘s “Innovation Tours” of city schools. Inspired by an Israeli organization, IDEA promotes the vision that students and communities should be democratically invested in their schools. To get educators to sign on, the group exposes them to democratic models of schooling in action. The goal of each Innovation Tour, which IDEA co-founders Dana Bennis and Jonah Canner lead, is for participants to walk away with ideas about how to broaden participation in their own communities — and then to implement those ideas, with IDEA’s help.

“We’re not just creating a certain school and modeling it and building it out around the country,” said Bennis, now IDEA’s director of research and programs. “This is about communities coming together and asking: What are our goals for education? What do we want to achieve?”

During last week’s tour, the group’s third since its founding in 2010, participants visited the iSchool, a centerpiece of the Department of Education’s Innovation Zone, and Urban Academy, the alternative high school on the Upper East Side whose students demonstrate proficiency through presentations and projects instead of Regents exams. They heard the principal of Brooklyn’s P.S. 28 describe her vision for a school that helps everyone in the community, not just the students who are enrolled. And they saw how The Point, a community group in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx, works with new schools, develops green spaces, and provides outlets for creativity.

Administrators at the two high schools emphasized  the ways they grant students and teachers the freedom to shape the curriculum and program. At both schools, teachers design courses they want to teach and students select most of the classes they take, and classes include students from all grades whose learning is dictated by their interests. Even space is distributed democratically among faculty and students, with large common rooms where teachers and students work side by side.

At the iSchool, administrators said, the goal of democratic learning is to let students take control of their academic success. In many rooms, the teachers disappeared behind the students, who took center stage as they passionately debated the dangers of nuclear testing in India and Pakistan in a Model United Nations short course and as they designed their own symphonies on laptops in a short, intensive course called “Inside the Music.”

In contrast, Urban Academy founding director Ann Cook said democratic learning at her school is meant to engage students around social and political issues that affect them. Urban Academy’s hallways contained sculptures, murals, and photographs, but also news clippings about the school’s battle for a waiver from requiring Regents exams and a big banner across the entrance that declared “Hunter College Hands Off! Save Julia Richman Schools! Save Our Community!”

“What we’re looking for is to have obnoxious citizens come out of our school,” she said.

If the mornings showed the IDEA tour group what education looks like “with liberty,” the afternoons showed what it looks like with “justice for all.”

P.S. 28 kindergartners sharing their observations about leaves

At P.S. 28, principal Sadie Silver described her efforts to turn half of the school building into community space that includes a meeting room and space for nonprofit groups to offer a nursing program, support for foster care families, job training, and other services. How the implementation of wraparound services will trickle down from big ideas to classroom practice remains to be seen, she said. During a whirlwind tour of the school (bubbly student leaders counted to sixty in each classroom before tapping visitorson the arm, whispering “we have to go,” and skipping off to the next room) the IDEA group saw uniform-clad elementary-schoolers engaging in fairly traditional lessons about editing for capitalization, counting to five, and making observations about leaves.

“It’s not just about how to teach your kid reading, but about how to find an apartment in this economy, about how to find a job.” Silver said. “We couldn’t do what we wanted to do within the school without targeting the environment as a whole.”

Innovation Tour members getting a guided walk through Hunts Point

Tour members saw a different vision of whole-community improvement efforts at The Point, the last stop on the Innovation Tour. On Friday afternoon, the group’s airy brick and windowed building in Hunts Point was busy with students entering a Shakespeare program and community members working on their incubating business ventures. After a presentation about the area’s poverty, Point staff led a walking tour through the community, pointing out places of progress: new schools, green spaces, a cleaned-up waterfront.

The Point prides itself on giving community members the tools to improve their environment and their lives.

“It’s about power,” said Sharon De La Cruz, director of The Point’s A.C.T.I.O.N. program. “Not in a greedy or nasty way, but as in empowerment.”

As the tour concluded, participants reflected on what they liked about what they saw — the couches in Urban Academy’s hallways, the vision at P.S. 28 — and how they would take the lessons they learned back to their home communities.

“I didn’t imagine that there were so many people working on education and trying to improve their community and the youth,” Omar Soto, a social worker and coordinator for Nuestra Escuela, an alternative school in Puerto Rico, said through a translator. “I learned that there is tons of work to be done.”

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.