Brooklyn parent leaders look for political support on school diversity

Elected parent leaders in District 15 presented a resolution Thursday that called on City Council members and the Department of Education to prioritize diversity in schools.

A group of parents in Brooklyn’s District 15 are calling on the city to make school diversity a new priority.

Frustrated by statistics that show decreasing diversity in their district’s schools, and enrollment policies they see as unfair to their own children, some parents, principals and teachers said they wanted to see change at a two-hour forum on Thursday. But the more than 100 participants came to few firm conclusions about the kind of diversity they want, and who is responsible for creating it.

The lack of specifics illustrates a central problem in tackling admissions and enrollment policies: making change involves navigating a tangled web of parent preferences, city policies and longstanding district boundaries.

On Thursday, the district’s elected parent leaders called on City Council members to require the Department of Education to make clear commitments to school diversity. The resolution, which the Community Education Council introduced but didn’t vote on, asks the department to develop admissions plans for new schools that prioritize diversity and to require schools to regularly release data on their diversity.

The resolution, which comes a few months after a UCLA analysis of federal education data said that New York state was home to the nation’s most segregated schools, broadens discussions about school integration that have been happening at individual schools throughout the district, including P.S. 133 and Park Slope Collegiate. But advocates said they are now looking to attract wider support.

At the forum, parents disagreed on what factors should be considered when trying to increase school diversity, with some attendees asking why the resolution did not mention race specifically. The resolution also focuses on policies for new schools, rather than reworking policies at existing schools.

City education leaders did address school diversity a few weeks ago on the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board decision, and State Education Commissioner John King recently called out the city for its enrollment policies, which he said left neighboring schools serving dramatically different populations of students.

But at a recent town hall meeting in District 15, Chancellor Carmen Fariña said that discussions about diversity should take place school by school, for now. She also said that the city is working on increasing diversity in specialized high schools, and said the city was “disappointedin the results of the recent school segregation analysis on the anniversary of Brown v. Board.

Nalia Rosario, president of the district’s Community Education Council, said it was time for City Council members to call for specific commitments from the Department of Education.

“This is when the elected officials come in,” Rosario said.

City Council member Brad Lander, who represents Park Slope and co-hosted the forum with City Council member Carlos Menchaca, agreed that change would be welcome, but said that more local conversations were needed before elected officials could move forward.

After the meeting, Lander said he is drafting a bill that would require schools to put together annual diversity progress reports. He noted that the resolution’s calls for new schools to prioritize diversity was especially important, since the city’s capital budget includes funding for three new District 15 schools in the next five years.

City Council members Carlos Menchaca (left) and Brad Lander hosted a parents forum to discuss diversity in schools on Thursday.
PHOTO: Mary Ellen McIntire
City Council members Carlos Menchaca (left) and Brad Lander hosted a parents forum to discuss diversity in schools on Thursday.

“We don’t have an admissions process or a line-drawing process which says diversity has to be a central question when we create a new school,” Lander said.

David Tipson, director of New York Appleseed, a nonprofit that was influential in creating a diversity-focused admissions policy at P.S. 133, an elementary school in District 15, said the conversation showed that some parents were willing to look beyond zoning policies that have benefitted them.

“For this to happen in District 15, where people really value their zone privileges, it shows a lot of courage and leadership from the CEC and from the elected officials,” he said.

Another challenge facing parents who want to see school diversity improve is that schools don’t have a lot of control over their own admissions processes. P.S. 133 was given specific permission to draw students from its own district and District 13 in an attempt to engineer above-average diversity.

Some parents noted that increasing school diversity also means making sure schools have the resources to offer programs attractive enough to reduce the fierce competition for a few of the most well-regarded schools.

“Every parent wants the best for their kids,” said P.S./M.S. 282 parent Corinne Frinnah. “And every parent here would like to see diversity.”

Geoff Decker 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.