strange bedfellows

Once at odds, union and charter school team up to fight closure

United Federation of Teachers Vice President Leo Casey at a public hearing about Opportunity Charter School's charter renewal

For months, Opportunity Charter School CEO Leonard Goldberg fought to keep the teachers union out of his school. On Monday, he welcomed them into his auditorium with open arms.

At a public hearing to discuss the school’s future Monday evening, United Federation of Teachers Vice President Leo Casey and other UFT officials joined Goldberg and his newly unionized staff to push back against the possibility that Opportunity could be closed. The school’s charter is up for renewal this year and the city has cited it as one of six charter schools whose performance is so weak that they could lose their right to operate.

The partnership between the school’s leadership and the union would have seemed inconceivable just a couple of months ago when the two sides were locked in a legal battle over whether the school’s teachers should be able to join the UFT.

Union officials and teachers accused Goldberg of retaliation after he fired more than a dozen teachers shortly after they voted to unionize at the school in March. Goldberg refused to acknowledge the teachers’ union vote, prompting a hearing with the state’s Public Employee Relations Board, which eventually ruled that the teachers could use the UFT as their bargaining agent. The union has also filed a grievance over the firings.

All of that was apparently water under the bridge during Monday night’s meeting, which two officials from the DOE’s charter schools office attended. Goldberg said he was happy to have the union’s support and UFT officials said the school should stay open.

The school’s performance data put it at the bottom of the city’s rankings. Last year, the high school posted a 57 percent graduation rate, only slightly lower than the city’s average. But no graduates met the city’s metrics for being college-ready. And in the middle school, just 7 percent of students met the state’s proficiency standards in English. Fewer than a quarter were deemed proficient in math.

But dozens of students, parents, and teachers who attended last night’s meeting, which featured performances from a pep band and cheer squad, said the school provides the kind of services and opportunities that no school – district or charter – has, particularly for students with special needs. About half of Opportunity’s students require special education services, some with severe disabilities, and the other half are generally among the city’s lowest-performing academically.

Chris Sammon, a senior who said he has learning disabilities, said he was ostracized at previous schools but is now on track to graduate from Opportunity.

“I know that what we’re doing is a miracle everyday and what we should be given is constant congratulations and lauding and space to do it, but all they keep doing is taking space away from us,” Goldberg said.

Goldberg’s comment reflected yet another place where school leaders and union officials forged a united front: against charter school operator Eva Moskowitz, whose Harlem Success Academy 4 shares Opportunity’s Harlem building. They said they feared that Opportunity could be closed to make way for HSA 4, which opened in 2008, to expand.

“If a decision about Opportunity Charter School is made based solely on education, and not political reasons, it can not be closed,” Casey told the audience of teachers, students, and parents to applause.

Jenny Sedlis, a spokeswoman for the Success Charter Network, said that HSA 4 a “good working relationship with Opportunity” and expressed support for the school.

“We want all schools, whether district or public charter, to succeed,” Sedlis said by email. “We’re hopeful that Opportunity will be able to overcome their academic challenges.”

Opportunity’s academic performance was a main reason why the DOE renewed the school’s charter for only a limited, probationary term in 2009. A few months later, an investigation found that poor management at the school had caused discipline rules to be enforced in ways that were at times physically abusive to students.

The school’s low teacher retention rates also raised a red flag at the DOE. During the 2009-2010 school year, 14 of 46 teachers were fired or resigned, according to city data. This summer, 14 teachers were fired and several others quit before the school year began in September.

In an interview Monday night, Goldberg said he was grateful for the union’s support at the meeting and said he was excited that the union was now in the school. Both sides confirmed that negotiations on a contract were moving forward, with a second meeting between school leaders and union officials set to take place today.

“This mission is so special that it takes all hands on deck to make it work,” Goldberg said. “And if the union wants to be a part of it, that’s great.”

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.