Measured response

A frequent critic of testing, de Blasio takes the good test news in stride

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio in August 2014 announcing last year's state test results.

It was an odd first test-score release for Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The mayor couldn’t help but celebrate the good news Thursday that the city’s scores on the third-through-eighth-grade state exams had inched back up after last year’s nosedive. But he also was aware that not too long ago he knocked his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, for putting too much stock in test results. On top of that, de Blasio could hardly claim much credit for the gains, since he took office midway through the school year.

Meanwhile, there was the sobering fact that even as all students made progress, white and Asian students continue to perform far better than their black and Hispanic peers — with the gap between them actually widening. And even with the gains, nearly two-thirds of students still did not pass the tests, which for the second year were tied to the more demanding Common Core learning standards.

“We recognize the improvement this indicates,” de Blasio said outside a middle school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. “But we have a long way to go.”

This year, 34.2 percent of city students passed the math exams, up 4.6 points from last year. In English, 28.4 percent of students passed, a one-point gain, according to city figures. That progress brought the city’s pass rate closer to the state average than it has been in years.

After touting those figures Thursday, de Blasio commended the previous administration for “their part of the equation.” Still, he pointed out, “In this year that bridged the two administrations, everyone contributed to the progress.”

But any attempted credit-taking was preempted by an email sent to reporters just as the press conference was starting titled, “Former New York City Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott Touts Test Score Gains in Final Year of Bloomberg Administration.” In the statement, sent by a Bloomberg spokesman, Walcott attributed the gains in part to the creation of charter schools and stronger accountability systems — two Bloomberg policies that de Blasio has sharply criticized.

Later, de Blasio was asked about Walcott’s message. The mayor said he welcomed the news that the city’s charter schools did well on the tests. (Overall, they outperformed the city average in math, but lagged a little behind in English.) Still, he said that “in our system,” schools serve all students regardless of their needs and are moving away from test prep — which he said is not true of all charter schools.

Another message went out later from Michael Mulgrew, the city teachers union president who clashed bitterly with Bloomberg and is now aligned with de Blasio. Mulgrew pointed to the disparities among student groups. For instance, while nearly 56 percent of white students passed this year’s math tests, just over 15 percent of black students did — a gap that grew by more than two percentage points from last year.

“The racial achievement gap, which the Bloomberg administration kept claiming it was closing,” Mulgrew said in the statement, “remains a major problem that the schools and the new administration must focus on.”

Mulgrew added that student achievement begins with “well-supported” teachers. That was a message echoed by de Blasio and his schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña.

Fariña said a provision in the new teachers contract that sets aside time for educators to train and collaborate will help them to continue to adjust to the new standards. She added that thousands of teachers and 900 principals received training over the summer.

Such guidance will do more to improve classroom instruction than the previous administration’s accountability system, which included grading schools based on student performance, Fariña said.

“It’s about not pointing fingers and saying, ‘You’re a bad school,’” she said. “But let’s look at what it is you do and what support do you need.”

Despite their ambivalence about test scores, both Fariña and de Blasio set lofty goals for the coming years. Fariña said she would like to “double or triple” the current pass rates, while de Blasio insisted, “The goal is to have 100 percent proficiency for our children.”

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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.