Inside baseball

DOE's public affairs director leaving to teach in Central America

Lenny Speiller, the education department’s head of public affairs whose stint was checkered by a lobbying incident that got him into trouble with city investigators, is making an unusual career move. He’s moving to Honduras to become a teacher.

Speiller’s exit is part of a restructuring within the Department of Education’s communication and legislative offices meant to improve how the DOE communicates with members of the public, Chief Operating Officer Veronica Conforme told staff in an email this week.

Speiller’s role in charge of public affairs was to work with elected officials and community-based organizations on DOE initiatives and to curry support for the department’s legislative goals. Under a four-office merger, public affairs will be folded into the External Affairs office. The other public-facing shops getting absorbed are: Communications, Digital Communications, and the Chancellor’s Strategic Communications Group (a spokeswoman said the last one helps Dennis Walcott read and respond to emails from the public).

Jessica Scaperotti, a former Cuomo and Bloomberg aide who joined the department in April, will over see the new streamlined office. Elizabeth Rose, a public affairs official, will temporarily fill in for Speiller while a permanent replacement is found.

In announcing Speiller’s departure to staff, Conforme didn’t offer much of a reflection on his two-and-a-half year tenure, which was filled with a busy legislative agenda. During his time, Speiller worked on the successful push to raise the state’s cap on  charter schools and on the less-successful effort to reform teacher tenure laws.

But it was his work on the issue of seniority-based layoff laws that got him into trouble.

In October, Richard Condon, the Special Commissioner of Investigation, found that Speiller broke the law when he urged school employees to engage in political lobbying on the issue.

Here’s what we wrote about the investigation in October:

During “Lobby Week” in March, Lenny Speiller, executive director of the DOE’s Office of Public Affairs, inserted language into an email to parent coordinators asking them to share a petition calling on lawmakers to do away with seniority layoff rules for teachers, investigators concluded. Mayor Bloomberg was pushing the policy change heavily at the time. But the state constitution prohibits public employees from engaging in private political lobbying.

Speiller was reprimanded by Chancellor Dennis Walcott, who ordered him to take ethics training classes. His personnel file also received a letter noting the incident.

The report said that Speiller worked closely on the issue with his predecessor, Micah Lasher, who was Bloomberg’s top Albany lobbyist at the time. Speiller wrote an email to Lasher asking for advice on the political language used in the petition. Lasher didn’t response and was not included in Condon’s investigation.

City Councilman Robert Jackson, who regularly butts heads with the department as chair of the education committee, called Speiller, “a very cordial, diplomatic and level-headed person” to work with.

Jackson also said that the lobbying impropriety shouldn’t be held against him.

“I don’t think he did it on his own,” Jackson said. “If he was told that that’s what he had to do, he either had to do it or he wouldn’t have his job.”

Lasher left the Bloomberg administration in April to take a job running the New York office of Michelle Rhee’s political action committee StudentsFirstNY.

Shortly after, Speiller spoke to Walcott about leaving, Scapperotti said in an email.

“Two months ago, Lenny spoke to the Chancellor about an opportunity for he and his wife to teach at a developing school in Honduras,” Scapperotti wrote.

Speiller, whose last day of work is today, declined to comment through Scaperotti.

Speiller is the second top communications official to leave the DOE this year and there has been high turnover within the communications department in recent months. Communications director Natalie Ravitz left in January, which was followed by the departure of three other press officers.

Scapperotti said the reshufflng will improve how the DOE communicates with members of the public.

“This was done so we can better keep parents, teachers and the general public informed about DOE programs and initiatives,” she said.

Below is Conforme’s letter to DOE staff.

Dear Colleagues,

I want to share some exciting news about our external communications and government affairs team and a merger that will enable us to have a more streamlined approach in communicating with our stakeholders. To reflect the already close working relationships shared among the staffers in Communications, Public Affairs, Digital Communications, and the Chancellor’s Strategic Communications Group, we have merged these teams into one External Affairs Office under the leadership of Jessica Scaperotti.

As many of you already know, Thursday is Lenny Speiller’s last day. After serving as our Director of Public Affairs for two and a half years, he will be leaving New York City to take a teaching position in Honduras. While we continue the search for his replacement, Elizabeth Rose will manage day-to-day operations, reporting to Jenny Sobelman, Chief of Staff for External Affairs.

I appreciate your cooperation as we move forward with this exciting change, and am very much looking forward to the work ahead.

Thank you.

Veronica

 

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.