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At Upper West Success charter, diversity that mirrors the district

Eva Moskowitz says that each of the charter schools she runs will always look exactly the same, from their robotics labs to their chess rooms to their classrooms filled with wooden blocks.

There’s just one significant difference at Upper West Success Academy, which opened this year on Manhattan’s Upper West Side under a steady drumbeat of opposition from community members.

“Our schools in Harlem and the Bronx are far less diverse,” Moskowitz said today, speaking to reporters on a tour of the first-year charter school.

Enrollment at Upper West Success mirrors that of District 3, according to data provided by the school: The kindergarten and first grade student body is 35 percent white or Asian, 49 percent are black or Latino and 16 percent multiracial. About 40 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch. English language learners make up 5 percent of students and 12 percent of students receive special education services, officials said.

The racial and socioeconomic diversity of students at Upper West provides a stark contrast to the student bodies at other school in the Success Network in Harlem, the South Bronx, and Bedford-Stuyvesant, neighborhoods that have high concentrations of poor black and Latino residents.

Moskowitz is hoping the diversity will attract parents in District 15, a similarly diverse district, to enroll at her network’s new school next year. Seated in a kindergarten-sized chair in an empty classroom today, Moskowitz told reporters that she has been giving tours of Upper West Success to hundreds of parents from Brooklyn’s District 15.

Throughout the city, she said, “There are affluent people living right next to public housing.”

At Upper West, which occupies two hallways on the second floor of a building that also houses five high schools, students in a class called simply “Blocks” worked in groups to build castles and freeways out of wooden blocks.

The class is play time, but with a purpose, Moskowitz said.  “We believe in play time as a critical intellectual experience.”

Down the hall, students learned the most basic concepts of computer programming. Using a striped robotic bug whose movements corresponded to its directional buttons, a student had to think carefully about which commands she wanted program before the bug moved.

“They have to think about the moves before they make a decision,” said the teacher, Sarah Unger. “It teaches them to be less impulsive.”

At the end of the corridor, where the school’s two hallways intersect and lead out to a stairway used by students from the five high schools, a school safety officer stands guard to prevent older students from entering the Upper West Success. Beyond those doors, there is a different perspective about the Department of Education’s decision to open a new school here.

Rachel Dahill-Fuchel, a founding vice principal at the three-year-old Global Learning Collaborative, said she had nothing against Eva Moskowitz or her schools.

“They are lovely people and the children are adorable,” Dahill-Fuchel said this afternoon as she checked student passes at one of the building exits. “But we’re dreadfully overcrowded.”

The DOE estimated that the Brandeis building less than two-thirds filled before Upper West Success moved in. By the time all schools reached capacity, the building would still be underutilized, according to the DOE’s space plan. Even more room will be available next year after Brandeis High School finishes phasing out.

Dahill-Fuchel says she would have preferred that no new schools be added until the four new schools in the building expanded to full capacity.  Already, she said, updated enrollment numbers – there are 45 more ninth-grade students than the DOE expected when it determined capacity rates – were  causing a significant space crunch for her students.

“We don’t have room to grow,” Dahill-Fuchel said. “They don’t have room to grow.”

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.