great expectations

Co-location backlash turns de Blasio allies quickly into critics

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
The president of a community education council in Brooklyn holds a sign opposing new co-locations at a Panel for Educational Policy meeting in October 2013.

Hundreds of people crowded into Brooklyn’s I.S. 281 last October for a public hearing on a plan to install a new charter school in the building. More than 50 people spoke that night, and all but a handful said they opposed the space-sharing proposal.

Later that month, as a school policy board appeared set to vote in favor of the plan, an I.S. 281 teacher said she was hitching her wagon to the mayoral frontrunner, Bill de Blasio, who had promised to review each approved co-location.

“Hopefully,” the teacher said, “de Blasio does what he says he’s going to do.”

But after de Blasio, now mayor, announced last week that almost all Bloomberg-era co-location plans would go forward, people at I.S. 281 and across the city who had pinned their hopes on him said they were disappointed. Parents and politicians alike said de Blasio was already breaking a promise to consider public input when making school decisions.

“We expected to see change,” said Laurie Windsor, president of the elected parent council that oversees I.S. 281’s district. “That’s what they kept saying, and we really, fully trusted them. Now the trust is gone.”

On Thursday, de Blasio and his schools chief announced that they had reviewed 45 co-locations approved in the final weeks of the Bloomberg administration and decided to cancel nine, including three that involved charter schools. The three dozen other co-locations, including the one at I.S. 281, will proceed as planned.

“We did a thorough analysis as quickly as we could in the first weeks of being here,” the mayor said at a press conference Thursday. “We decided that some of these were not fair, did not make sense, and we took action.” (Education department officials also noted that overturning many of the proposals would hurt students who had applied to attend the new schools.)

De Blasio’s announcement outraged supporters of the three Success Academy charter schools that lost space they had been promised. But it also inflamed many parents, educators, and elected officials who had counted on the new mayor to reverse more co-locations, and who saw in his decision a lack of consistency and transparency. The backlash revealed how quickly the administration’s supporters might morph into critics if their hopes for specific causes are dashed.

Vincent Gentile, a south Brooklyn City Council member who supported de Blasio’s mayoral bid and lobbied against the I.S. 281 co-location last fall, said the city had not contacted him or others invested in the school during the review process.

“To my knowledge, none of that input was sought,” he said, adding that he learned of the decision only when it was announced publicly. “Part of the disappointment was the lack of a heads up.”

Gentile and two other Democratic City Council members released a statement Thursday saying they were “furious” with the decision and intend to fight it “tooth and nail.” Separately, the parent groups behind a lawsuit meant to stop more the co-locations said they would continue with their legal challenge.

The principal of a school that will share space with a new charter school next fall said he emailed a deputy chancellor during the review period to raise his concerns about the co-location, but did not get a reply.

“I didn’t find the review to be a transparent process,” said the principal, who asked for anonymity because a superintendent instructed him not to discuss the decision publicly. “There wasn’t a way for principals to make their case.”

Last week, the education department announced that it would more actively involve the public in future co-location decisions through extra meetings and the formation of a working group. But the effort was seen by some as a half-measure, since the new engagement policies did not apply to the pending co-locations.

“It was like, ‘We’re going to listen to you in the future, but this is what we’re doing now,’” said Larry Acosta, who directs an adult education center based inside I.S. 171, a middle school in East New York that will have a new middle school open in its building this fall.

At least one group endorsed the city’s co-location decisions: a coalition of charter schools seeking the city’s support and whose leaders were invited to meet with top city officials shortly before Thursday’s announcement. They released a statement the next day calling the city’s decision-making process “thorough” and “principled.”

But such support was drowned out by criticism from people who felt betrayed by de Blasio, who during the mayoral campaign had pledged to “rescind those [co-location] proposals that have clear negative impacts,” while allowing the rest to remain. Many people appeared to have disregarded the second half of de Blasio’s promise.

“He’s a scam,” said Josephine Shayef, whose son is a seventh-grade student at I.S. 281. “He told us when he was elected, everything would be reversed. Why did he lie?”

For Mona Davids, the head of the New York City Parents Union, the administration’s decision felt like a personal betrayal. Her organization is a part of a lawsuit alleging the Bloomberg administration acted unlawfully in approving dozens of co-locations last October, and Davids was expecting big change from de Blasio.

Instead, the limited scope of the changes left her “hugely disappointed and surprised.”

“As much as de Blasio says he’s about a new day, he’s not engaging parents,” Davids said. “At this point, de Blasio continues to renege on all campaign promises.”

Windsor, the CEC president, said parents and community members will now regard the administration’s school policies with more skepticism.

“Now you have to take it with a huge grain of salt,” she said.

But Dionne Grayman, the co-founder of NYCpublic.org, an organizing tool for public school parents, defended the city’s decisions, saying it would have been infeasible to undo all the planned co-locations. She added that it will take time for the city to better include parents in its decision-making, but even then parents will not always be satisfied with the city’s choices.

“As optimistic as I am, I think we have to be realistic,” she said.

Sarah Darville contributed reporting.

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.