bed-stuy restoration

Boys & Girls leader steals the show at lively pre-closure meeting

In a fiery, off-the-cuff speech delivered to supporters on Tuesday, outspoken Boys and Girls High School Principal Bernard Gassaway reiterated charges he has leveled for years: The city is keeping him from turning around his long-struggling school.

Just that afternoon, he recounted, he confronted and sent away an unwanted teacher assigned to him by the Department of Education.

“They sent a nut job here,” Gassaway said, to cheers from the crowd who turned out a meeting held by the department as part of a process to determine whether the school should close.

“But that’s what they think about kids,” he added as part of the 11-minute address. “You don’t think that’s not done intentionally?”

With a 37 percent four-year graduation rate and a 2.4 percent college-and-career-readiness rate, Boys and Girls ranks as one of the lowest-performing schools in the city and has for years. Demand for the school has also waned, as enrollment has dropped 40 percent — from 2,000 to 1,200 — since 2010.

Department  officials have publicly pledged support for Gassaway and last spring spared the school from undergoing a grueling turnaround proposal that ultimately failed in courts earlier this year. But after another year of low performance — and an “F” grade on its latest progress report, the second in a row — the city is taking a closer look and will soon decide if it should receive the same fate as other comprehensive high schools that have shuttered under the Bloomberg administration.

The school’s status under Gassaway has been unsteady for years, but he has enjoyed the support of the Bedford-Stuyvesant community, including many influential political, business, and religious leaders. The school’s advisory board includes City Councilman Al Vann, State Sen. Velmanette Montgomery and Assemblywoman Annette Robinson, Regent Lester Young, Rev. Conrad Tillard and Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation President Colvin Grannum.

That support was on display Tuesday night. Vann, Robinson, Young, and Tillard joined U.S. Congressman Hakeem Jeffries and about 200 others to voice their opposition to closing the school.

“There’s a lot of history here. This is part of who we are as a community and a people. You can’t close that,” said Vann.

Dozens of speakers laid out familiar arguments for why the school should be saved. Many of them said other school closures in Brooklyn and Queens had caused a large concentrations of high-need students at Boys and Girls.

“We now have to bear their burden,” said Anthony Jones, a graduate who now works with the school’s track team.

“It’s not the school that’s failing at all,” said Deanna King, a student. “It’s the people who sit there and bring 1,800 students who are terrible and bring them into our school.”

Since ex-Chancellor Joel Klein handpicked him to lead the school in 2009, Gassaway has publicly stated a desire to get rid of teachers that he considered subpar, and recently he has begun criticizing the city for not helping him do that. Still, many teachers have left under his leadership, he said, adding, “I’m feeling more optimistic with the staff we have in place now.”

Supporters said changes Gassaway has made would take some time to have an impact. Vann said younger students will be the first to enjoy the real benefits of the reforms, which include a partnership with Long Island University, where students earn college credits.

About 25 sophomores are part of the program’s first cohort. One of them, Armando Dunn, enrolled in the program so that his mother would allow him to attend Boys and Girls and join the basketball team. Both of his older sisters had attended ultra-selective city high schools.

“I can’t send you to a school where I see statistics saying that it’s failing,” Lisa Dunn recalled telling her son.

Now, Lisa Dunn is president of the school’s parent association and said she believes Gassaway should have more time to turn the school around.

Principals of schools facing closure usually keep a low profile at the city’s “early engagement” meetings, which are run by district superintendents. But after about 90 minutes of testimony, Gassaway appeared in front of the stage and addressed the crowd.

Gassaway began by saying he was done assigning blame.

“What we can’t do, and what I may have been guilty of in the past, is we can’t point fingers,” Gassaway said. “There are powers that be that would love to have me stand up here and bash this group or bash that group. I’m not going to do that.”

But soon Gassaway was ripping the department for its deployment of teachers from the Absent Teacher Reserve, a pool of teachers who lost their jobs through budget cuts or school closures. Gassaway said that just hours earlier he was involved in an incident with an ATR teacher who had refused to resume teaching until a disruptive student was removed from the class.

“I looked at my kids. I tell them, ‘don’t fight’, so I couldn’t fight,” Gassaway said. “But I said to myself, let me get him out of here.”

“He’s not coming back,” Gassaway added, to cheers.

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.