Invisible opportunities

City schools struggle to connect students with summer options

Lettie Edgerton says it's a struggle to keep her grandaughter Kyndal busy over the summer.
Lettie Edgerton says it’s a struggle to keep her granddaughter Kyndal busy over the summer.

Jovani Nias’s 21 years as a mail carrier in Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn has given her unique insight into how families in the neighborhood spend the year. Now that school is out, she said, differences among families even in the same building are even more obvious.

“You see some kids leaving for programs or summer school, and the other kids are just out, hanging on the corners,” Nias said.

Which direction a student takes over the summer can change the course of her education. Researchers have pegged students’ academic regression — known as the “summer slide” — as the equivalent of two months of school or more. Students who are occupied in summer learning are more likely to sustain their progress from the previous year.

But whether city students can avoid the summer slide is often a matter of luck, depending largely on how their school’s approach to summer learning and their family’s access to information that schools don’t always provide.

“There are opportunities that are invisible in my community that are more visible in other communities,” said Sheryl Davis, a Brooklyn parent. “We all have that conversation, what are you kids doing this summer? And I find that a lot of schools do not help with that.”

What schools do and don’t do

The Department of Education Department of Family and Community Engagement and the Division of Equity and Access each play a role in overseeing summer options and funneling information about them to schools and communities. But it largely leaves the decision about how aggressively to pair students with summer opportunities up to individual schools.

“I’d like to say there’s one centralized place but there isn’t,” said Marcus Liem, a department spokesman. “The Division of Family and Community Engagement provides information that ideally trickles down to all principals and parent coordinators, and hopefully they get the information to families as well.”

How well the information trickles down varies widely among schools.

At the Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice, a full-time student enrichment coordinator provides detailed information about summer options and coaches families through the application process.

Elissa Martel, who plays that role, said that if she hears about a theater camp, she’ll track down students she knows love acting and guide them through the application process. If the program costs more than their families can afford, Martel said she finds scholarships and helps the students apply.

“A lot of our students’ families are single-parent families,” Martel said. “Parents working evenings or weekends don’t necessarily have a schedule that’s conducive even to helping with homework in some cases, or going the extra mile and getting students involved in after-school or summer opportunities. It’s very time-consuming, and some of our students’ families don’t have Internet access at home or don’t have a computer that functions.”

Davis said the personal assistance is a main reason her daughters have a packed summer schedule that includes volunteering at the Brooklyn library and interning a few days a week for their assemblyman, Walter Mosley.

But Martel doesn’t actually work for the school, which Davis’s older daughter attends. A foundation connected to the school, called the Adams Street Foundation, pays her salary. And she said it’s hard to imagine how a school could offer such extensive support without adding positions like hers.

“Most of the other partnership coordinators or enrichment focused people I’ve interacted with have some other job title as well,” Martel said. “Job counseling, guidance counselors — a lot of people are struggling with balancing all the hats that they’re wearing.”

Parents try to fill the gap

More common is the experience of Sharon Gross. She said her children’s school, Brooklyn College Academy, had passed along some information about summer programs, but it was informal parent networks that helped her twins find something meaningful to do.

One of those networks is run by Davis, who said she was struck by the experiences of colleagues in the customer service department at Con Edison, from which she recently retired.

Jovani Nias has watched how summer plays out in Bed-Stuy for 21 years.
Jovani Nias has watched how summer plays out in Bed-Stuy for 21 years.

“When I would go to work and say, ‘I’m going go to see about this program,’ my coworkers didn’t know anything about these programs,” Davis said. So she started sharing any information she received through regular email blasts.

In a recent message from Davis, Gross learned about CAMBA, a Brooklyn nonprofit that provides paid work for teenagers. Her twins will make $8 an hour as program assistants at a summer camp, where they will also receive mentoring. Last summer they worked at Long Island College Hospital, an opportunity Gross found out about through another parent on her son’s swim team.

“There’s so much that the kids can benefit from,” Gross said. “But if you don’t get the information or you don’t know anyone to give you the information, you can miss out.”

Gross said she also relies on parent networks for information about colleges and scholarships.

“It’s still time-consuming because you have to go through each and every one and see which one applies for your kids and then do the work that’s required to get the scholarship. But, I have to say, I’d rather go sift through it as opposed to not having anything,” she said.

Continuity brings benefits

On a recent a recent afternoon in Bed-Stuy, after some local schools had already finished the year, many parents said they didn’t know what their kids were doing next. But children whose schools offer summer programs or who already participated in after-school programs that run summer camps were most likely to have plans.

Tiffany Hall’s son Tyrone is going into second grade at Beginning with Children Charter School 2. She said she got a call from the school giving him the option of attending optional summer school, which she accepted.

Sheryl Connelly, the school’s director of operations, said the summer school was originally only open to students at risk of failing, as is the case at most district schools. “But then we ended up taking more children, as parents heard about it and knew there was a free program,” she said.

But funding summer programs for students who are not failing can be a challenge for budget-strapped schools.

Community groups, such as Children of Promise in Bed-Stuy, also run summer programs, but Lakisha Adams, who lives in Flatbush, said the organizations typically give priority to kids already involved in their programming during the year.

There simply aren’t enough spots to go around in programs that are “affordable to the average person who’s struggling and paying more than half their income for rent,” she said.

Even parents determined to find summer programs said the demand for affordable options exceeds the supply. Bronx father Mohamed Sheriff said all the programs he looked into for his 6- and 12-year-old sons last year and this year were full. Both sons attend the Bronx Academy of Promise.

“Even the waiting list is so high. There is no hope they will be able to take either one of them,” Sheriff said. “I didn’t discuss it with the children’s school, because they don’t tell us about it and I don’t think they do such programs.”

Safwan Akhder says the only summer program she heard about from her daughter Sazidah’s school, P.S. 93, is too far away, so she’ll stay home and read books with her brother Sumi, a rising sophomore at Brooklyn Tech who wants to join a summer soccer team.
PHOTO: Courtesy
Safwan Akhder says the only summer program she heard about from her daughter Sazidah’s school, P.S. 93, is too far away, so she’ll stay home and read books with her brother Sumi, a rising sophomore at Brooklyn Tech who wants to join a summer soccer team.

The stakes are high, for safety as well as academics. As PTA president at an Explore charter school, Adams said she saw kids who had not attended summer programs struggle to re-adjust to the structure and rigor of a new school year. And “with the gang activity and all this stuff that happens on the streets, it’s dangerous and you want your kids in as much structure as possible,” she said.

Without a plan

For many families in Bed-Stuy, summer is starting with open questions about how their children will spend their time. Kyndal Williams, a rising junior at Gotham Professional Arts Academy, wants a summer job but hasn’t found one. What does she plan to do instead? “Nothing,” Williams said.

Her younger sister Sierra jumped to explain what “nothing” means. “Chilling. She likes to walk places or take the bus places. And stuff like that, and talk to people.”

On her son Shaleek’s last day of second grade at P.S. 93, Aebony Morris said she “wanted him to go to a summer program” but didn’t know of any options nearby that she could afford.

Safwan Akhder said the only summer program she heard about from P.S. 93, which her daughter Sazidah attends, was too far away. Sazidah will stay home and read books with her brother Sumi, a rising sophomore at Brooklyn Technical High School, who said he wants to join a summer soccer league.

“Still undecided!” another parent said about her daughters’ summer plans, then turned to them. “What do you want to do?”

Francine, who declined to share her last name, said if she had heard of any summer options for her son Shyheem, a rising third grader at P.S. 44, she would have signed him up.

“I hope the school has something for [kids] to do,” Francine said. “I know some schools do stuff for kids in the summer. Does that school? I don’t know.”

This story is part of a multi-city series on expanded learning time, with funding from the Ford Foundation, which supports “more and better learning time” in high-need communities. Also participating in the series are the Notebook (Philadelphia), Catalyst Chicago, EdSource (California), and GothamSchools’ sister site EdNewsColorado.

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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.