breaking bread

Charter group gets a seat at the de Blasio table, then backs him up

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Salim Virji

A charter group angling for the city’s support finally got a meeting at City Hall. Not long after, it’s become Mayor Bill de Blasio’s staunch ally on some politically-sensitive education issues.

First, it publicly distanced itself from a high-profile charter school rally being organized by de Blasio’s opponents. Then on Friday, it emerged as perhaps the only supporters of the city’s controversial decision around dozens of charter school co-location plans.

The loosely-connected group still doesn’t have a name and its founding members are hesitant to label themselves. “I’m not even sure it is a group yet!” Harlem RBI Executive Director Rich Berlin said in an email recently. 

Recently, it goes by “community-based public charter schools”. Its membership is a moving target, with schools signed onto some statements but missing from others. But its core leadership has stayed the same, consisting of, among others, Berlin, New Visions for Public Schools President Robert Hughes, Renaissance Charter School founder Stacey Gauthier, Teaching Firms of America founder Rafiq Kalam Id-Din, Future is Now Schools founder Steve Barr, and Jonathan Gyurko, an education consultant and former city education official.

Despite their uncertain status, they’ve made quick inroads since forming just a month ago. They were called to a meeting with Blasio’s top aides on Thursday morning, just hours before the city announced it was rolling back three Success Academy charter school co-location plans. A pressing item on the agenda was to offer a sneak peak at the reasoning behind the city’s decision and, possibly, get some political cover for what the city knew would be seen as a controversial move.

A day later, the group came through for de Blasio. In a lengthy statement, they said they “came away with the impression that the city’s process was thorough and decisions principled.”

“I think it’s always disappointing because people want space and need space,” Gauthier said of the decision in an interview on Friday. “But I think they went through a fair process. It’s still disappointing, most especially for Success that has kids who are still moving to another grade.”

It was rare public approval for the decision, which has so far been roundly criticized by most sides involved. City Council members and the schools they represent where many of the plans will continue said de Blasio didn’t go far enough. On the other side, Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz and her allies pledged to aggressively fight the decision, possibly with legal action.

(The city said it canceled one of the Success plans, which evicted currents students from a building for next year, because it would have resulted in the reduction of a program for students with disabilities.) 

It’s the second time that de Blasio has been backed by the group of charters while the mayor has been vulnerable. Yesterday, they said they were ditching a rally in Albany that was organized Moskowitz and other charter schol advocates because it was on the same day as a big prekindergarten lobbying effort planned by de Blasio’s team.

“The message you’re sending is that you just want a war,” Barr said, referring to the charter school rally. “I love political strength and organizing, but tactically to lead with that, it sounds more personal to some folks.”

The new support has been eagerly embraced by de Blasio’s team. A City Hall spokesman was the first to share both statements with Chalkbeat and a consultant from the public relations firm handling press for de Blasio’s pre-K campaign, BerlinRosen, blasted out a copy of the group’s anti-rally statement this morning.

The City Hall meeting included Intergovernmental Affairs Director Emma Wolfe, Deputy Mayor Richard Buery, Jr., and the chiefs of staff for both de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

Charter leaders who attended the meeting said they didn’t get anything in return for offering their support for de Blasio on these sensitive issues. They said they were just happy to have a seat at the table.

“When we first actually got together, our goal was just to have a dialogue,” said Gauthier. “Getting a meeting with senior officials is not necessarily easy.”

Gauthier and other attendees said that they also discussed, in broad terms, ways that the city could leverage its authority as school building landlords that house charter schools. One idea was to require schools to fill empty seats vacated by students who leave the school, a practice known as backfilling. Many of the highest-performing charter schools don’t backfill beyond early grades, which some believe can keep test scores high.

Another idea discussed was that, instead of paying rent, charter schools could pay for programs that could be shared by all co-located schools in a building, such as renovation costs, enrichment events and professional development sessions.

“We all left feeling very positive about this meeting, that the administration was really sincere in its efforts to work with us,” Gauthier said.

Correction: A previous version incorrectly stated the impact of the Success Academy expansion)

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.