On the Agenda

In District 2, push to create more schools trumps closure news

Chancellor Dennis Walcott responds to District 2 Community Education Council member Tamara Rowe's questions at a town hall meeting.

Parents in Manhattan’s District 2 came to a town hall meeting Wednesday night with Chancellor Dennis Walcott with one item at the top of their agendas: plans to manage school crowding.

But Walcott wanted to talk about other things. He opened his remarks by talking about the city’s scores on a national exam, then segued into announcing that the Department of Education would soon name the schools it wants to close.

No District 2 schools are on the city’s shortlist for closure. Three high schools located in the district, but not administered by it, are on the list.

Walcott was tight-lipped about which schools would receive closure notices over the next two days. But he said department officials had been considering whether the shortlisted schools “have the capacity to improve.” And he told reporters that the decisions would support the middle school reform initiative he announced earlier this year.

“I made a commitment around middle schools and I intend to adhere to that commitment,” Walcott said. “I want 21st-century middle schools that are meeting the needs of our students.”

Most of the roughly three dozen parents who braved heavy rain to attend the meeting wanted to talk about the demand for new neighborhood elementary schools and the city’s recent rezoning proposals. Earlier this fall, families turned out in droves to protest elements of a three-part proposal to rezone schools in Downtown Manhattan and the Upper East Side. District 2 Community Education Council members rejected the first two proposals and held a meeting to discuss the city’s revised, final offer after the town hall.

Walcott did not stay for the zoning meeting, which CEC members and about a dozen remaining audience members kept short. Several parents from a building in the Financial District that has been rezoned from the Spruce Street School to Peck Slip, a new school set to open in Tweed Courthouse next year, said they opposed the switch. CEC members said they would consider alternate proposals but said they did not expect the DOE to come out with another revision.

Several CEC members decried the city’s response to crowding in the district, charging that the School Construction Authority’s projections of how much space is needed does not reflect reality.

‘We want a seat at the table when some of these decisions are made,” Elizabeth Weiss, the CEC’s vice president, said. “We want to sit down with the SCA before, not after.”

Before leaving, Walcott acknowledged the need for more school space in some parts of the city. But when pressed on the possibility of opening new schools in District 2, which faces overcrowding in many elementary schools, Walcott said practical realities would prohibit the DOE from adding more schools at the pace community members say they would like to see.

“We need to get as creative as possible, especially in Manhattan, which is so dense,” he said.

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.