waiting game

Dispute over grants for longer school days leaves schools in limbo

Plans to lengthen the school day at eight low-income middle schools are now hanging in the balance because of a squabble between city and state officials.

With a little more than four weeks before the school year starts, the schools counting on nearly $8 million in “extended learning time” grants have been told the money is in danger of being withheld because the city’s application didn’t comply with state contracting rules.

The city was one of 25 districts across the state that applied in October to lengthen the year at low-income schools by 25 percent, and was awarded $7.6 million last month.

Many of the city schools set to receive the funds, such as M.S. 223 in the Bronx and I.S. 340 in Brooklyn, lengthened the day for sixth graders last year by two and a half hours as part of a pilot with the city’s Middle School Quality Initiative and were planning to expand those programs. Another school, I.S. 77 in Queens, wasn’t part of the MSQI pilot, but had extended its day for some students by 40 minutes in the morning.

The uncertainty has frustrated officials who hoped that by now they would have been able to start planning for longer days when the school year begins Sept. 4.

“This is a great opportunity for a huge amount of funding, and it’s going to be hard to try to do this in two weeks in August,” said an official from a school set to receive some of the funds.

The funding hold-up is the latest in a string of issues that has plagued Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s touted competitive education grants. Cuomo first floated extended learning time in a speech 19 months ago that laid out his 2013 budget priorities for the year.

Capital New York reported last week that just two winning districts statewide had concrete plans for implementing extended learning time models in their schools, while two other districts were considering dropping out entirely, citing the limited time they had to implement the programs.

With the school year a month away, city schools are still eager to get started, said Chris Caruso, vice president at The After School Corporation, one of three nonprofits picked by the city to help implement the grants this year.

“I know that the schools are anxious and from what I hear there continues to be optimism that this will get resolved,” Caruso said.

City education officials said the hang-up was because of a disagreement over a state law that’s meant to ensure that minority or woman-owned businesses are given an equal opportunity in state-funded contracts or grants. The city says the law doesn’t apply to the department in this case and is seeking a waiver, while officials for Cuomo have insisted that any applications for state-funded grants must comply.

“In other words, the State selected us as a district grant recipient even though the proposal as submitted did not meet the expectations required,” Christina Fuentes, who directs the city’s Middle School Quality Initiative, wrote in an email to principals and nonprofits who were part of the application on Tuesday.

Fuentes said the department was ready to start a fight over the matter.

“We are currently working with our legal department and aligning our interests with political entities to try to get over this impasse,” Fuentes wrote.

Representatives for both the governor’s office and the State Education Department refuted Fuentes’ concerns and said the city’s grant was not being withheld. They would not confirm if the city’s application complied with state procurement laws and said the money had not been disbursed yet because the grant process wasn’t complete.

After Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the email and followed up with questions to the city department’s press office, a spokeswoman downplayed any disagreement and said the issue was headed toward an amicable settlement.  She said that the city was working with the governor’s office to comply with the state’s Minority/Woman-owned Business Enterprise law.

“The DOE is finalizing a robust [Minority and Women Business Enterprises] plan, and we are working towards fuller MWBE participation in the coming year to ensure we receive this critical funding,” said the spokeswoman, Devora Kaye. “We are examining ways we can support schools and programs this upcoming year, in case there is a delay in funding.”

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.