back in the saddle

Santiago Taveras, a former DOE official, returning as a principal

Santiago Taveras will be the new principal of DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. (Photo courtesy of Facebook)
Santiago Taveras, a former deputy chancellor, will be the principal of DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. (Photo courtesy of Facebook)

All it took was one interview question for Santiago Taveras to realize he wanted to be a principal again.

Taveras, a former Department of Education deputy chancellor, will be the new principal of the struggling DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx this fall.

The position marks a reversal of the trajectory Taveras’s career has taken up to now. After starting his career as a city teacher, Taveras headed several schools before landing a position in the Department of Education’s central administration. He was the deputy chancellor for teaching and learning until the department dissolved that division, then served as the city’s first and only community engagement czar.

Taveras left the department at a time of turmoil in April 2011, just days before Cathie Black’s brief tenure as chancellor ended. He became a vice president at Cambridge Education, the consulting firm that conducted the first quality reviews in New York City schools, which Taveras oversaw while at the department.

But in recent months, Taveras said he wanted to work directly with students again, so he interviewed for a schools superintendent job in New Jersey.

During the interview, he was asked to describe the most gratifying work he had done in his career. Taveras talked about a group of 10 students he mentored when he was a teacher at Central Park East Secondary School in East Harlem.

“Those 10 boys taught me more about life, about the struggles of young men, than I had ever learned from my two master’s and bachelor’s degrees,” he said. “I started getting emotional during the interview, and I was thinking to myself, ‘What am I doing trying to be the superintendent of a school district when I know for a fact what I want to do is be closer to students?'”

Taveras called his old colleagues at the Department of Education and asked what he needed to do to become a principal again. He said Chancellor Dennis Walcott was kind enough to “grandfather” him into the principal pool, and a week later Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky offered him the job at DeWitt Clinton.

Taveras said he knows there’s a lot of work to be done at the high school, which was considered for closure this past year due to dismal progress reports and is now set to shrink substantially while also sharing space for the first time. He has spent the last couple of days at the school listening to teachers’ and students’ concerns and so far has three main priorities for the improvements he wants to make.

First, he said he wants to build up the school’s technology infrastructure. He also wants to set up professional learning teams to help teachers better understand the new teacher evaluation system and how to align their instruction with the Common Core learning standards. Taveras also wants to rebuild school morale to counteract the negative reputation that many have of DeWitt Clinton today.

Taveras has experience closing schools, after heading South Bronx High School after the city decided to phase it out in 2001. And he has even more experience opening new schools: He was the founding assistant principal of East Side Community High School, and the founding principal of both Banana Kelly High School and the Urban Assembly Academy for Careers in Sports.

But taking over a school with a long and storied past and trying to turn it around after a period of decline so that it becomes a school that students want to attend will be a new challenge.

“You have to come in and get them to buy into your vision,” Taveras said about the staff.When he spoke with teachers on Friday, he said he kept repeating the importance of everyone working as a team otherwise they will not be successful at turning the school around.

“Teachers came up to me afterward and said, ‘I’m on that team, I’m ready to work with you to get this done,'” he said. “That was inspiring… It was something that I was not expecting because of course, I’m somebody new who they don’t know… but I can see there’s an urgency to turn the school around.”

He said he thinks his experience at Tweed taught him that with every decision there are always advantages, disadvantages, and different stakeholders to consider, but at the end of the day, the choice has to benefit the children.

“I don’t think anybody has gone from deputy chancellor back to kids,” Taveras said. “It shows, I believe, one of the reasons I was welcome at Clinton on Friday is that they understand this isn’t about media, this isn’t about anything else other than doing something I’m happy to do, building community, turning schools around, and making people feel empowered about the work they’re doing to teach 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.