No Money for You

From school sports to free lunches, hearing highlights requests left out of mayor's budget

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
David Garcia-Rosen (left, wearing a white shirt collar and blue jersey), founder of the Small Schools Athletic League, marched into a City Council hearing with student athletes to demand funding for the league.

A City Council hearing on school spending got off to a dramatic start Wednesday when some 100 students wearing blue athletic jerseys turned inside-out marched into the council chambers to deliver petitions demanding more money for school sports.

The athletes are among the 1,700 students in an athletic league that a teacher created to serve small high schools that are not part of the main city-funded league. The City Council had called on the city to devote $1.25 million to the league, but the mayor’s budget left out the funding, so the league’s founder decided to file a civil rights complaint.

“We can’t wait one more day, for one more excuse,” shouted David Garcia-Rosen, the founder and a history teacher at International Community High School in the Bronx, before guards ushered the group out of the chambers. (The education department has said that most high schools already have sports teams and that it is working to include more small schools in its league.)

The Small Sports Athletic League was just one of several education-related City Council requests that did make it into Mayor Bill de Blasio’s budget for next year. Among the other unfunded proposals are free lunch for all students, bigger school budgets, and restructured school-support networks.

Council members questioned the schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and other officials about those missing funds and other concerns, such as increased funding for charter schools and space for new pre-kindergarten seats. Still, the tone was hardly combative, with several members praising Fariña’s educational credentials and the city’s pre-K expansion.

“Thank you all, I’m actually leaving here smiling,” Fariña told the council, before heading to another meeting without taking questions from the press.

Here are some other highlights from the joint hearing.

Bigger school budgets

Individual school budgets will not budge next school year, Fariña said.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the city was owed $2.5 billion more in education funding from the state.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the city was owed $2.5 billion more in education funding from the state.

The council had asked the city to use any extra state funds to boost school budgets, but that money was directed to after-school programs and charter schools, which must receive more money per pupil under a new state law.

Education committee chairman Daniel Dromm wondered on Wednesday whether the flat funding would stop schools from hiring enough teachers to keep up with rising student enrollments, leading to larger class sizes.

In her testimony, Fariña highlighted new school spending in the mayor’s budget: $300 million for pre-K, $145 million for after-school programs, $23 million for arts education, and $13 million to support English-language learners.

She said some of those programs should save schools money, since they will no longer have to pay for them from their own budgets. Also, the city will soon lift a hiring freeze on new guidance counselors and art teachers, Fariña added.

Still, she said the city is owed an additional $2.5 billion from the state for next year, which would have gone towards school budgets, smaller class sizes, and supports for young students.

“We will continue to fiercely advocate for our students’ fair share,” Fariña said in her testimony.

Free school lunches for all

The City Council wanted the city to pay for free school lunches for all students, arguing that the current system stigmatizes students from low-income families who qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Only one-third of the 780,000 eligible students currently accept the meals, according to advocates who held a press conference before the hearing.

The mayor did not include the universal free-lunch program in his budget, which would cost $24 million. Officials said on Wednesday that they worried the program could jeopardize some schools’ federal funding. But Fariña said one option is to pilot a scaled-down version of the plan, perhaps starting just in middle schools.

Service hubs inside schools

Some schools offer students health, dental, and vision services on campus, an arrangement that several council members said they’d like to see spread to more schools.

Fariña pointed to the mayor’s plan to create 100 new “community schools,” which provide those services and others to students and their families. But while the mayor’s budget sets aside $1.3 million for new school nurses, it does not include the $12.5 million that advocates have sought for the first batch of community schools next year.

Council members did not ask about that funding at the hearing. Before it began, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said she believes “very strongly” in the idea of community schools, but that she has not yet discussed funding for it with the administration.

Support for schools

Many have questioned the usefulness of the school-support networks, and the City Council called for restructuring that system in order to save money.

Fariña said a team is surveying schools about their experiences with the networks, which she has said previously will remain in place for now. The city also received a $500,000 grant to train local superintendents to better support schools, she said. The ultimate goal is a system where “where one phone call is going to get you the answer,” she added.

Space for pre-K

While most council members praised the plan to expand pre-K, some questioned whether their districts would see many new seats. Finance committee chairwoman Julissa Ferreras, who represents parts of Queens, said her district lacks public school space or local nonprofits that could offer many new pre-K seats.

“So what happens in districts like mine,” she asked, “where we hear about this great program and parents line up at 5 in the morning to try to get the few pre-K seats that are in existence?”

Sophia Pappas, the education department official who oversees pre-K, said the goal is for every neighborhood to have plenty of pre-K options, but in the meantime parents may need to look for open seats near their jobs or their relatives’ homes.

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.