nice guys finish last

Administrator dinged for bailing out teacher facing foreclosure

When a special education teacher at M.S. 302 in the South Bronx found out in late 2009 that, like so many other Americans at the time, she was at risk of losing her house to foreclosure, she went to her assistant principal for help.

The assistant principal, Larry Thornton, offered her a deal: He would buy the house from her, but then he would rent it out to her so she could continue living there. The teacher accepted the offer and had a lawyer hammer out all of the details.

A month later, Thornton needed a helping hand himself. He went to the teacher — now also his tenant — to get a loan of $5,000. He must have seemed like a safe bet: A year earlier, he had borrowed from the teacher and paid back his loan in full. The teacher issued the loan and retired a few weeks later, in January 2010.

Today, the city’s Conflict of Interests Board announced that Thornton would pay a $3,500 fine for the transactions, which violated a city rule that bars employees from doing business with superiors or subordinates. Thornton accepted the ruling and agreed to pay the fine, according to a disposition the board released.

According to a press release, both the board’s investigative arm and a city office that looks into allegations of wrongdoing at schools, the Special Commissioner of Investigation, had worked on determining that the illicit transactions had taken place.

The Department of Education is not pursuing any further action against Thornton, according to a spokeswoman. The spokeswoman, Connie Pankratz, said the department considers employees’ conflicts of interest violations on a case-by-case basis and seeks additional consequences only if the violations also break department rules.

But sometimes, transactions like the one the conflicts board determined that Thornton had with the teacher he supervised do wind up costing school workers their jobs.

In one prominent example, the city moved to fire Jose Maldonado-Rivera, the founding principal of Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, and Engineering, after city concluded that he had engaged in an “inappropriate financial relationship” with the school’s parent coordinator. The investigators found that Maldonado-Rivera had paid the parent coordinator to babysit his son and had allowed her to live rent-free in his home.

The offenses likely would not have yielded such harsh sanctions if they had been the only times Maldonado-Rivera had been cited for flouting department rules. But the department had placed him on a two-year probation just months earlier Special Commissioner of Investigation Richard Condon found that he had not sufficiently supervised a field trip on which a Columbia Secondary School student drowned. The probation meant that any offense would be grounds for dismissal.

Today’s conflicts ruling was not accompanied by a report from Condon’s office, nor has the office previously released a report about Thornton or M.S. 302. Condon publicizes only a fraction of SCI’s reports, even when allegations are substantiated.

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.