the admissions test

More children passing the gifted exam, but not in poorer districts

More children than ever passed the city’s admissions test for gifted and talented programs this year, according to data released today by the Department of Education. But the number of children qualifying in the city’s poorest districts has actually fallen in recent years.

In four districts where qualifying scores have historically been so scarce that the city has not opened gifted programs, just 52 children scored high enough to make them eligible for admission.

The 9,416 students who scored higher than 90 percent on the city’s two tests outpaced last year’s total — 7906 — by about 20 percent. The total represents a 77 percent spike since 2008, when the city first turned to a standardized application process for its elementary school gifted programs.

The increase means that more students are eligible to enroll in district-based gifted programs, which require scores in the 90th percentile or above, as well as in five elite citywide programs that requires scores in the 97th percentile. Last year saw a drop in students who qualified for the citywide programs, but the 4,092 students who scored that high this year is 40 percent more than two years ago.

The increase in applications and qualifying scores has been largest in districts with many affluent families. This year, just 52 students posted qualifying scores in in the South Bronx (Districts 7 and 9), East New York (District 23) and Bushwick (District 32) out of 479 test-takers — 27 percent fewer than in 2009.

The Bloomberg administration standardized the admissions process for gifted programs five years ago in an effort to increase equity. Before then, admission standards varied by school and neighborhood, an arrangement that critics said benefited only the most resourceful — and affluent — families. The city also began to make a more concerted effort to provide information about the process to more families.

As a result, the number of children who took the test saw a significant increase in the first year that the reforms were rolled out, but those numbers dropped back down in 2010. The number of test-taking children in high-poverty districts has barely changed since.

Now, the city is developing its own test to screen students for giftedness as a replacement for the tests it currently uses, the BSRA and OLSAT. A Department of Education spokesman said the new test would likely be administered during next year’s admissions cycle.

Robin Aronow, a consultant who helps families navigate public school admissions, said she thought the department was trying again to increase equity in gifted program admissions.

“I think it’s one of the reasons — to level the playing field a bit,” she said.

Aronow attributed the boost in qualifying students to more vigorous test preparation. “There’s been lots of prepping going on to make sure kids are ready for this test,” she said.

Explaining the phenomenon in 2010, she said, “Certainly there is prep that is going on all over the city. There are books out there now for kids. There are independent companies that have boot camps. Can I attribute all of the increase to that? Not necessarily, but I’m sure it played a role.”

As has always been the case, a spot in the citywide programs is hardly guaranteed for top scorers. Last year, 1,803 incoming students qualified for about 325 seats.

This year, 102 fewer children made the cutoff, and education officials said they expected that there would be more seats available. But last year, about 970 students scored 99 or above, “so you still have to be lucky just to get in,” Aronow said.

The number of students scoring in the 99th percentile this year was not immediately available. More than 40 percent of the qualifying students scored at the 97th percentile or higher.

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.