homecoming

Fariña signals she's open to untying test scores and promotion decisions

Speaking to parents in Brooklyn Wednesday night, Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña signaled another possible policy change—this time to Bloomberg-era promotion policies.

“This is all stuff we’re thinking about, so I don’t want to see tomorrow that this is absolute: Is there a way to rethink how we look at promotion?” she asked the parents, who were a mix of parent association leaders and parent coordinators from District 15, where she was once a principal and superintendent. “Does promotion have to be tied to a test?”

Changing the policy of allowing students to continue to the next grade level regardless of whether they passed state exams was a top priority of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s when he gained control of the school system in 2002. The use of test scores in student promotion decisions, teacher evaluations, and school grades prompted parents’ questions about test anxiety for Fariña.

Untying test scores from promotion decisions doesn’t necessarily mean reinstituting social promotion, which refers to promoting students based on their age. But Fariña’s response indicates one way she could make good on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s promise to reduce the city’s emphasis on standardized test scores.

The social promotion ban took effect for third grade in 2004 and was in place for grades three through eight by 2009. Some years, few students were affected by having to score at least a level 2—half of one percent of fifth graders in 2008, for example. (In 2012, the city backed down slightly, allowing students who had been held back multiple times to be promoted if they had shown certain gains.)

As social promotion was curtailed under Bloomberg, the city also put money into Saturday programs and intervention specialists at schools, Fariña noted on Wednesday. Anna Commitante, who became an executive director under new deputy chancellor Phil Weinberg last week, will be working to revive those intervention efforts and to improve Common Core-related professional development, she said.

And while she criticized how the tests have been used, the chancellor offered her full endorsement to the tougher exams themselves, just one day after the uproar over the new exams led state lawmakers to call for a delay in using them to evaluate teachers.

“Testing itself is not the issue. I just want to say clearly that I do think the Common Core is the right thing,” Fariña said. How the new standards are aligned with existing curriculums, though, is where “we’re trying to make sense of nonsense.”

Fariña made it clear that she did sympathize with many of the parents’ concerns about testing and student stress. She repeated the lines she used when testifying in Albany: when students urinate in class or throw up, it’s all gone too far.

But she cautioned the parents in District 15, many of whom have been at the forefront of the anti-testing push, that she wouldn’t encourage opting out of the state exams.

“Again, every parent needs to make their own decision. I don’t think necessarily opting out of the test is the greatest way to get the best outcome,” Fariña told them.

At the meeting, Fariña also praised the district’s parent associations, which often raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, for also “caring about your neighbors’ children.” She focused on how parents and principals in District 15 could use their expertise to help more needy Brooklyn schools through grant-writing and joint events, and encouraged school leaders to swap staff with schools in nearby Sunset Park.

A number of parents said they were happy to hear more specifics from Fariña about how she envisioned parents taking the lead in her old district. The middle ground on testing didn’t sit well with everyone, though.

“She isn’t presenting an alternative,” said Heather Abdel, vice president of P.S. 230’s parent association. “She’s not for testing, and she’s not for opting out.”

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.