the odds be ever in their favor

Everyone’s a winner in one charter network’s admissions lottery

Superintendent Seth Andrew answers questions after the lottery event at Democracy Prep

What do you call a lottery when everyone wins?

An “Oprah moment,” according to operators of the Democracy Prep charter school network. They handed out 550 school seats like they were cars in one fell swoop Thursday night during the network’s annual admissions lottery.

Hundreds of students and their families packed into the basement gym of Democracy Prep High School, eager to find out whether they had won a spot at the middle and elementary schools to which they had applied. They knew that many people who apply to charter schools aren’t selected to attend — an experience that some of them had even had before — but they were hoping to get lucky.

The tension didn’t last long. As the room filled up, Democracy Prep Superintendent Seth Andrew announced that there would be no lottery: Every student who lived in District 4 and District 5 would be admitted.

“You get a seat and you get a seat and you get a seat!” Andrew said, pointing to applauding audience members while offering his best Oprah impression.

“That’s awesome,” said Harold Lilly, whose fifth grade daughter attended a private parochial school. He said when he first came in and saw the hundreds of people vying for spots, he doubted he’d win. “But this is a blessing.”

The surprising turn of events was unusual for charter school lotteries, where the emphasis is often on the large number of applicants and small number of seats. Some charter school networks, including the Success Charter Network, have even done away with public lotteries, citing the huge numbers of disappointed families that would attend them.

The four schools in the Democracy Prep network did receive thousands of applications — 5,500 in total, according to the network. But when administrators crunched the numbers, they realized that everyone who applied from the districts where the schools are located would secure a seat because of the state law that requires charters schools to select in-district applicants first.

There were more in-district applicants than there are seats in the four schools, but Andrew said the network is expecting its “yield” — the portion of admitted students who actually attend — to drop this year. In the past, about three quarters of admitted students enrolled, but as more high-quality middle schools have opened in the area, that figure has fallen and is likely to be about 60 percent this year, he said.

Some charter operators might be distressed when fewer families opted to keep the seats they won in lotteries. But Andrew said the shift reflected good news for the neighborhood, and provided evidence to counteract a report released earlier this week that painted a grim picture for education in Harlem. The report said there were zero “high-performing” public schools in District 5 and only a few in District 4, but its data were years old and didn’t include charter schools, which Andrew said was an oversight.

Harlem, Andrew said, is now home to “many of the best middle schools in the city.” He attributed the saturation of charter schools in Harlem – half of the 1,700 District 5 sixth-grade students will attend charters next year — to being an ideal school choice scenario for families.

Charter schools have touted both their in-district and out-of-district wait lists as evidence of demand for their schools. Earlier this month the Success Charter School Network announced that more than 12,000 students applied for 1,200 open seats. Andrew said that Democracy Prep’s waiting list of students living outside of Harlem numbered in the thousands.

Most parents at the Democracy Prep lottery event that we spoke to said they wanted their child to attend the school. Davida McNeil is homeschooling her fifth grade son this year, but she said it had become too much of a financial burden and wanted him to return to the public school system.

“I figured charter schools are the best option there is,” said McNeil, who said she had applied to a Harlem Success Academy school when her son was a kindergartner, but didn’t get in.

Joe Garrett said that when his special needs daughter won a spot in the lottery of another Harlem charter school, he was “given a hard time about it” and told that they could not provide services for her. He said he was hoping that Democracy Prep would be more welcoming.

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.