New York

Voices from the 2013 high school search: Jonathan Aguilar

Jonathan Aguilar

Jonathan Aguilar, 13, stood in the middle of the jam-packed Francis Lewis High School gym, trying to find a calm spot amid the bustle of parents and students at the Queens high school fair.

At first, Jonathan’s plan was to collect material being handed out from the schools with strong technology programs. But with the sheer number of schools at the fair and the crush of people, it was difficult to figure out each school’s specialty. He began stopping at nearly every booth and collecting the handouts.

“It’s overwhelming,” he said. “I’ve been walking through the school booths just taking papers from all of them.”

Jonathan’s mother, Sandra Aguilar, remained calm. This was not the first high school fair for the Aguilars, who live in the Glendale section of Queens.

“We went through this process with my older son, so I’m a veteran at this now,” she said.

Sandra Aguilar told Jonathan he didn’t have to find the right high school that day. She told him to go ahead and gather whatever documents the schools — and and all of them — were handing out. They’d go home and sort through those handouts to decide which individual high schools to visit later.

“We just accept as many papers as we can and then decide which school open houses we want to go to after we leave today,” she said.

Jonathan said did not want to go to high school outside of his home borough of Queens. For three years, he’s watched his older brother get up early to take the subway into Manhattan and the High School of Art and Technology. Jonathan reasoned that if he went to school in Queens, closer to home, he could sleep a little later in the morning.

Bobbing his head along with the music playing through his bright green headphones, Jonathan said that he was interested in schools that offer technology courses because he loves video games.

As if helping Jonathan look at high schools wasn’t enough, Sandra Aguilar said she is also helping her older son consider colleges. “I’m very stressed,” she said.

But she never considered skipping the high school fair. Going to the fair helped Jonathan’s older brother find a high school where he has thrived, she said.

“We hope that Jonathan has a similar experience,” Sandra said. “So we’re going to just take it little by little until we find the right school for him.”

Sandra said that there are more schools represented at the fair this year than when she attended with Jonathan’s brother, and the application process in general is more complicated.

Out of earshot from his mother, taking pamphlets from school representatives, Jonathan said that the thing he really wanted in a school was a good academic program.

“As long as the academics are top notch, you can’t go wrong,” he said.

Rebecca Harris is a student at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

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.