Teacher talk

Fariña hints at changes to arts ed, high school admissions at UFT talk

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
UFT President Michael Mulgrew and Chancellor Carmen Fariña, along with principals union leaders, agreed on a plan Thursday to overhaul two struggling schools.

Changes to arts education requirements and high school admissions are on Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s mind, she told members of the United Federation of Teachers at their annual conference this morning in Midtown. But she urged teachers waiting for details to be patient.

“Stay tuned,” Fariña said often during a wide-ranging, 90-minute conversation with UFT President Michael Mulgrew and in response to questions from teachers. 

Fariña didn’t make any specific policy announcements, but said she wants to see improvements to instruction for students with disabilities and English language learners. Fariña also said she wanted schools to improve their arts education offerings, referring to a recent report that found most schools are out of compliance with state laws requiring arts instruction.

“We’re going to say to people, the arts are important and there is a compliance issue,” Fariña said. “For a long time, I think it wasn’t on people’s radars, but it’s certainly on mine and just stay tuned.”

Mulgrew and Fariña’s discussion also avoided the elephant in the room: the contract negotiations underway between the teachers union and the city.

But Mulgrew did say that the city was considering changes to its high school admissions policies, which have faced legal scrutiny and criticism from state education officials who have said the city’s system sends too high a proportion of high-need students to certain schools.

“I know this is something you are looking at very closely and it is something … that clearly is being looked at, and I think that’s all we should say on that,” Mulgrew said.

“On the radar,” Fariña said in response. “I’m not going to give you a specific answer, but it’s on the radar.”

Fariña is now more than four months into her tenure as chancellor, and for most of that time, Mayor de Blasio’s administration has focused its education efforts on resolving charter school space battles and rallying behind plans to expand pre-kindergarten.

But Mulgrew and Fariña seemed more than willing to skip the topics on Saturday: charter schools were barely mentioned and neither brought up pre-K. (De Blasio is scheduled to speak at the event, usually attended by dozens of the city and state’s leading Democratic elected officials, later in the day.)

On Saturday, teachers said they remain eager to hear the specifics of Fariña’s plans for taking the school system in a different direction than the previous administration, something both she and de Blasio have promised.

Fariña’s talk did little to clarify those plans, but teachers were willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. Fariña taught elementary school in Brooklyn for 22 years, and many said they were just thrilled that the person in charge of the school system had experience in the classroom.

“I’ve never heard a chancellor get such a round of applause here,” Mulgrew said, recounting past conferences when he would take a more defiant tone to protest the city’s education policies.

Fariña didn’t talk about charter schools until a teacher in the audience asked about issues of equity between district schools and co-located charter schools. Fariña said a new co-location working group met for the first time yesterday.

“I do think there’s going to be a different tone because we’re putting everyone at the table,” Fariña said.

Gregg Lundahl, a high school teacher from Washington Irving High School, said that he was thrilled that Fariña was the chancellor, but knows that sweeping changes would take time.

“There is hope, but she has to create mechanisms to make real change,” Lundahl said. “So far I don’t see those mechanisms yet.”

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.