Regents Pass

Coalition wants the state to let more schools skip the Regents

A sign inside Urban Academy, a New York Performance Standards Consortium school, details the coalition's past struggles to maintain its Regents-exam waivers.
A sign inside Urban Academy, a New York Performance Standards Consortium school, details the coalition’s past struggles to maintain its Regents-exam waivers.

A coalition of small high schools where students complete graduation projects rather than take most Regents exams could soon add several more schools to its ranks – if the state lets those schools skip the tests.

The New York Performance Standards Consortium is in talks with the state to get Regents-exam waivers for as many as 22 schools that follow the group’s instructional model and use alternative assessments, but currently must also administer the Regents tests. The schools, which have been part of a multi-year pilot, include several high schools in the Internationals and Expeditionary Learning networks. Many of them have staff members who worked at consortium schools in the past.

The consortium currently includes 28 public schools — 26 in New York City and one each in Rochester and Ithaca — where students are exempt from taking all Regents exams except for English. Instead, they must earn class credits and complete intensive projects to graduate.

The group and its supporters – which include the city teachers union and more recently the city Department of Education – have lobbied the state to let more schools trade the Regents tests for the long-term projects, citing data showing higher-than-average graduation and college-enrollment rates among consortium schools.

“I think it’s a disgrace that these schools have to apply for a waiver to do more work and prepare children better,” said United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, adding that obtaining the state waivers is rarely easy. “We know every time we do it it’s a political battle.”

Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch declined to discuss the consortium or the waivers due to the ongoing talks. Ann Cook, the consortium’s executive director, also declined to discuss the talks but said she expected an answer from the state soon.

The consortium must ask the State Education Department to renew the test waivers for the schools that have them every few years, which the Board of Regents must approve. In the past, the consortium has sometimes needed to lobby lawmakers to get the waivers renewed, but Commissioner John King most recently granted the schools a three-year waiver extension in July.

The current negotiations are around whether the consortium can add new members, something that could be politically tricky for King to allow at a time when the state’s emphasis on standardized testing has come under fire. Some of the pilot schools have followed the consortium’s alternative-assessment model for years in hopes of getting their own waivers to stop administering Regents exams.

Students seeking diplomas at consortium schools skip the math, science, and social studies Regents tests. Instead, they complete a literary essay (in addition to taking the English Regents exam), social-studies research paper, applied-math project and science experiment, which they must defend before panels of teachers and outside observers. A student at the Institute for Collaborative Education, for instance, conducted a neurobiology experiment and wrote a 15-page paper comparing the writing of Ralph Ellison and Albert Camus for his assessment projects one year.

The city Department of Education gave the consortium funding a few years ago to train the pilot schools in its methods. Since then, it has pushed the state to offer those schools Regents waivers.

“We think this is very strong work that should be expanded,” said Shael Polakow-Suransky, the department’s chief academic officer. The school where Polakow-Suransky was the founding principal, Bronx International High School, is one of the consortium pilot schools.

Khadim Seck, a senior at Urban Academy, shows off artwork by a Japanese artist he analyzed for an art-criticism assessment project.
Khadim Seck, a senior at Urban Academy, shows off artwork by a Japanese artist he analyzed for an art-criticism assessment project.

The waiver wait has strained some schools. Jamie Munkatchy, a science teacher at Validus Preparatory Academy, a consortium pilot school in the Bronx, said that for the past six years she and her colleagues have attended consortium trainings, helped evaluate other schools’ graduation projects, and guided their own students to complete similar projects.

But still, their students must take and pass all five Regents exams required for graduation.

“You get tired of the consortium telling you waivers are going to come, but they never come,” Munkatchy said. “They would just say, ‘Be patient, it’s going to happen.'”

The situation changed recently for Validus. When consortium officials held a vote at the school to check for support of the alternative-assessment model, less than 80 percent of the staff voted for it. Now the consortium does not plan to seek a waiver for the school.

The consortium says it would like to secure waivers for all of the pilot schools that have participated in the trainings and where the entire staff backs the consortium model.

But some current and former pilot-school staffers have complained about a lack of transparency in the waiver process, where the consortium leaders lobby state education officials in private for the test exemptions on the schools’ behalf. Cook declined to provide GothamSchools a list of the pilot schools.

The consortium says it has asked the state to develop a more formal process for granting the waivers.

In the meantime, some pilot schools have struggled to balance the consortium-style project work with preparing students for the Regents.

“It’s kind of like dancing with two partners,” said Matt Brown, principal of Kurt Hahn High School, a pilot school that is part of the Expeditionary Learning network. “We feel like we would do a better job for our kids if we could focus on the performance-based assessments.”

Claire Sylvan, executive director of the Internationals Network for Public Schools, said of the network’s 15 New York City high schools, three are founding members of the consortium and the rest are consortium pilot schools.

“We do find that we can’t go as in depth in our performance tasks and portfolios in our schools that are required to do Regents as we can in our other schools,” Sylvan said, adding that she has not been informed if or when the pilot schools might receive waivers.

Leo Casey, executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, who previously worked closely with the consortium schools when he was the UFT’s vice-president, said he did not expect any schools to adopt the consortium model simply as a way to sidestep the state tests.

“It shouldn’t be seen as an opt-out,” he said. “It’s taking on a great deal more work.”

Khadim Seck, a senior at Urban Academy, cited an art-criticism project where he analyzed the work of the Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara — he creates “pictures that look cute, but there’s something dark lurking” — as an assessment that spurred learning in a way a typical test could not.

“Students are more than just a grade,” he said. “They’re actual thinkers.”

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.