lone ranger

Harlem impresario enters fraught charter school political scene

Lopez-Pierre, center, and his family, in a photo sent out in the new PAC's introductory emails.

A Harlem realtor known for founding a controversial social club and playing a role in a high-profile loan dispute is now entering the world of charter school politics.

Thomas Lopez-Pierre, a charter school parent, thinks Harlem’s political leaders don’t sufficiently support the charter schools that dot their districts. So he has formed a political action committee to help finance candidates who would.

The committee, called the Harlem Charter School Parents PAC, made its debut this week in a letter to charter school advocates outlining its political goals: to raise $250,000 over the next year to support candidates in Harlem’s three 2012 City Council races and local Democratic Party district leader races. The group also said it would find volunteers to help those candidates get out the vote.

Lopez-Pierre, whose son is finishing first grade at Harlem’s New York French American Charter School, said he and two other parents aim to create a new unified voice for parents in a community that has served as the front line of the political wars over charter school expansion. (Lopez-Pierre declined to name the other parents but said their children attend Harlem Children’s Zone’s Promise Academy and one of the Harlem Success Academy charter schools.)

“Elected officials only respond to two things: votes and money. Our goal is to elect officials that support charter schools,” he said. “My son is in first grade, and he’s going to be in a charter school for at least 10 years. This is not about an election cycle. It’s about transforming Harlem and expanding school choice.”

Harlem has the highest density of charter schools of any city neighborhood: Its more than 20 schools, run by a dozen different operators, enroll about a quarter of the neighborhood’s elementary- and middle-school-aged children. It also has a robust charter school advocacy community, with multiple operators regularly turning out large numbers of parents to public meetings and lobby days to defend their schools. One of the operators, Eva Moskowitz of the Success Charter Academies network, is particularly well known for training and mobilizing the thousands of families enrolled in her network’s 12 schools, which include five in Harlem.

Lopez-Pierre comes from outside of that world. His son’s school is small; not part of a network; and, unlike virtually all of the schools at the front lines of the political battles, has teachers who have joined the city’s teachers union. Late last year, parents pressed the school’s board chair to resign against his will.

Lopez-Pierre said no charter school or network is behind his campaign.

“Are we taking our marching orders from the leadership of any charter school? No,” he said. “This organization is run by charter school parents and we’re not interested in taking direction from any charter school staff member.”

Lopez-Pierre said his belief in the power of education stems from his personal experiences as the son of drug-addicted foster parents in Brooklyn who spent his teen years in a group home. “It was school teachers that helped save me on many occasions from my drug addict father who would beat me with a pipe when I got stopped by the police after buying his drugs,” he wrote in an email to his mailing list today.

Inspiration for the PAC came in part from a brush-off Lopez-Pierre said he received from State Sen. Bill Perkins when he and founders of his son’s school asked Perkins for a letter of support when they first applied for a charter.

“He was an hour late and then when he arrived he wasn’t interested in talking to us,” Lopez-Pierre said. “So that gives you an example of a taste we had of the nastiness of the political process.”

Perkins said in a phone interview that he did not remember the meeting taking place, but that he did meet with some parents from NYFACS last year when the school ran into financial problems.

“Parents, whether they’re from a charter school or not, I meet with them,” Perkins said. “Whether they criticize or ask for support or come to inform me about their school, I attend. I’ve even visited Eva Moskowitz’s schools, so I don’t see myself as against charter school parents or anti-parent or anything like that.”

Perkins has been a vocal critic of charter schools and their hold on Harlem. In 2010, he held a scathing hearing about the schools as legislators weighed whether more should be permitted to open. (The legislators decided they should.)

Although Lopez-Pierre is not working with existing charter parent groups, he said he has had “meetings with senior executives at large charter school networks” to discuss his plans and is scheduling more. He said would like parents from each charter school or charter network in the community to select a representative to join the PAC and help it decide which candidates to endorse.

Those charter school leaders so far do not include Moskowitz or other Success Academy leaders, according to spokeswoman Jenny Sedlis. “We haven’t spoken with him and don’t know anything about his plans,” she said.

Seth Andrew, the leader of another multi-school network in Harlem, Democracy Prep, also said he was not involved with Lopez-Pierre’s group.

Lopez-Pierre said his fundraising strategy so far has been to contact “wealthy Wall Street professionals,” some of whom he is connected to through his day job as a real estate broker, and charter school supporters from within and outside of New York State. So far multiple donors have committed about $10,000 in total to the PAC, he said.

Joe Williams, the executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, an influential political action committee that has backed charter schools, said he had not heard about Lopez-Pierre’s efforts before receiving the first email this week. But he said he thought the group could achieve its goals.

“Organized parents and donors can have a tremendous impact on the political landscape, even if they raise only a fraction of what they are talking about,” Williams said in an email. “Thoughtful political engagement can be extremely powerful.”

Some of Lopez-Pierre’s contacts could come from his days working for State Sen. Adriano Espaillat’s first political campaigns in the 1990s. Or he could tap into the network of businessmen, lawyers, and doctors he met as the operator of a social club and matchmaking service geared toward single, college-educated black and Latino men and women.

The Harlem Club, which operated from 2004 to 2008, drew criticism because of Lopez-Pierre’s approach to class and gender issues. His recruitment strategy targeted only professionals and he said he rejected applications from overweight women and women over 40, calling them “career women.”

Lopez-Pierre also has a checkered past with some Harlem community members. He was arrested last year on stalking and harassment charges after he sent emails to community members detailing a loan dispute with a Harlem restaurant owner and warning the restaurateur that his life was “at risk.”

This week, Lopez-Pierre explained that he had been informing the restaurant owner, Joseph Holland, that “hard-money lenders from Washington Heights” with whom he brokered a loan for Holland were upset that they hadn’t been repaid. “They’re going to kill him,” Lopez-Pierre said.

Lope-Pierre said he is “proud” of his behavior as the Harlem Club founder and in the loan dispute. But he said both cases are unrelated to his charter school push, and from his perspective, not particularly unusual.

“People do that all day long in Harlem, in Washington Heights,” he said about borrowing money from potentially dangerous lenders. “It’s the way business is done in the ‘hood.”

A post on the teachers union’s blog Wednesday brought up the Harlem Club and said Lopez-Pierre had a “disturbing background.” Lopez-Pierre responded by emailing community members and education stakeholders recent news stories about a lawsuit alleging that the union’s president committed sexual misconduct as a teacher, along with a note.

“UFT President Mike Mulgrew was just the kind of guy who would have made a great member of the Harlem Club,” read the typo-laden note. “Instead of talking about who he is having sex with school staff on school property or who I used to work for — lets talks talk about education policy and our ideas on how to make public schools in NYC better for all children.”

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.