white flag

Bronx school tries to stay positive about losing middle grades

Academy for Scholarship and Entrepreneurship Principal Zenobia White talks with middle school students.

The principal of a Bronx secondary school is calling the city’s plan to cut her middle grades a blessing in disguise.

Across the city, school communities and closure opponents are gearing up to protest this year’s round of city proposals to close or truncate 25 schools. But at the Academy for Scholarship and Entrepreneurship in the Bronx, one of the six principals whose secondary schools could lose their middle grades is raising a white flag.

In some ways, it’s easy for ASE Principal Zenobia White to accept that her school will shrink by three out of seven grades over the next two years. She doesn’t have to start thinking about looking for another job, as she would if the school had been proposed to phase out completely. And her job could get easier once she has fewer students to move forward and a smaller staff to develop and observe.

But losing her middle school also means giving up on a vision to usher neighborhood students through their entire adolescence at a single school. Her hope was that by meeting students early in their academic careers, ASE teachers would be able to have a sustained impact on their performance, and the high school would avoid a common pitfall — enrolling students who are performing far below grade-level.

“When you have a middle school, you’re always making choices,” White said when I met with her at the Wakefield school building this week. “I’m a person who wants to support every last child, every last initiative, but the reality is it’s just literally impossible to do that when you have so many things going on at once.”

Five years of logistical fits and starts undermined the vision, she said, citing unexpected budget reductions, two forced moves that caused some students to leave and resulted in the school being sited 5 miles north of its original location, and a slew of muggings at a nearby subway stop.

She also said the demands of running both a middle and a high school simply proved more difficult to juggle than she expected when she opened the school in 2005, with the support of the College Board, after completing New Leaders for New Schools, one of the city’s principal training programs.

“I want every student to take at least two Advanced Placement courses. I want them to have an internship before they leave here. I want to make sure that they are overall confident that they can compete when they go out into the world,” White said. “That’s a razor focus that I would love to have had in every aspect of the middle school life, but it just couldn’t happen.”

ASE’s middle school received a D on its most recent report card. The high school also got a D but will remain open, according to the Department of Education’s plans.

As the school gets smaller — the city’s plans have it losing a grade a year for three years — White said the school would be able to focus more on preparing students for state Regents exams and college.

In the meantime, White said she and teachers plan to redouble their efforts to analyze students’ test results to figure out where they most need help, and to create a mock progress report next year so they aren’t surprised again when the city’s is released. School network officials would also begin meeting with her once a week to map out a strategy for improvement. White is also forming an advisory board of community members, whose network she hopes to tap into to create internships for students down the line.

“In one sense academically we’re pushing the rigor, but in the other sense we’re going back to basics around testing strategies and those sort of things that we may not have focused on in the past as much, but realize the importance of now,” she said. “We now know that we’re being held accountable based on the data.”

They’re also inviting some of the high school’s top students into the middle school classrooms and part-time teacher aides and mentors. Kallicharan Balkaran, an eighth-grade English teacher, said having a junior or senior is his classroom is a learning experience both for the middle schoolers, who might otherwise find the high school students intimidating, and the upperclassmen who must revisit concepts that serve as foundations for their current courses.

One of those students, Amanda Perry, a junior, said she enrolled at ASE in middle school and stuck with the school because it felt like a tight-knit family—a concept that was reinforced when Balkaran invited her to mentor younger students in his class.

“It’s easy to learn stuff because the teacher has the opportunity to focus on you,” Perry said. “You have a relationship with them, and they stress the importance of understanding what you learn.”

Balkaran called news of the phase-out proposal sobering, but said he is “viewing it in a positive light.”

“We’ve always had high expectations here and we will continue to have high expectations,” he said. “There will be discussions around data, planning, new initiatives, working hard. These kids deserve to read and write on grade level so we will work even harder just to prove everyone wrong, though the city will close the school if that’s what they decide to do.”

Julieta Arroyo, a middle-school math teacher, agreed, even though teachers at schools that are phased out frequently find themselves in the Absent Teacher Reserve, a pool of position-less teachers who are shuffled from school to school as weekly substitutes.

“In spite of the decision that they’re giving us, we still have to work hard. And we tell the students, don’t be bothered about the decision—we are still here to teach you. We are still student-centered,” she said.

But Arroyo said she is holding out hope that the middle school might get a second chance, even though the Panel for Educational Policy has never rejected a city proposal to close or shrink a school.

“The decision might reverse,” she said, “if they see that we are working very hard.”

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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.