Arts Education

With arts offerings limited in many schools, Fariña celebrates top-tier student artists

PHOTO: Emma Sokoloff-Rubin
Recipients of the Chancellor's Arts Endorsed Diploma gather at the New York Supreme Courthouse.

Ritz Padilla wanted her daughter to be a teacher. So when AnJuli was applying to high school, Ritz steered her toward Hillcrest High School, a neighborhood school in Queens divided into nine career-focused tracks.

AnJuli didn’t last long in the teaching track. Soon after school started, she tried out for the school play and got hooked on theater.

“It takes a lot of courage to stand on stage and actually perform in front of people,” she said during a reception honoring about 1,250 recipients of the Chancellor’s Arts Endorsed diploma, held at the New York Supreme Courthouse on Wednesday.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, speaking at the event, drew attention the city’s efforts to give more students access to arts education, which Mayor Bill de Blasio committed new money to in his first city budget.

To qualify for the diploma, first offered in 2009, students must choose an area of focus–drama, dance, visual arts, or music–complete 10 classes in that area, and take a Regents-style exam designed by art teachers and professional artists.

Of the city’s 500-plus high schools, only about 30 had students graduate with an arts endorsed diploma this past year, according to a spokesman for the Department of Education. Though that number is just a small fraction of city schools, it’s double the number represented in the first year of the program.

Regis Laraque, AnJuli Padilla, and Damaris Tloudo, former classmates at Hillcrest High School, at a reception in their honor.
Regis Laraque, AnJuli Padilla, and Damaris Tloudo, former classmates at Hillcrest High School, at a reception in their honor.

AnJuli was lucky: while the quality and breadth of the arts program wasn’t her primary criteria when selecting a high school, her school’s theater track was strong enough that she easily completed the 10 semesters required for the arts endorsed diploma.

Many students don’t have the option, because their schools don’t offer that many courses in one area of the arts, or don’t have any arts programming at all, as Comptroller Scott Stringer noted in a report released in April. Though state law requires that all middle and high schools have some form of arts education, one in five city schools do not have a full-time, certified arts teacher, and schools in the poorest areas of the city were least likely to offer arts classes, according to Stringer’s analysis.

The number of schools with those programs could increase next year, once the city adds the 100 new arts teachers made possible by increased funding for the arts. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first budget includes $23 million in additional funding, bringing the city’s total arts budget up to $353 million.

Manhattan Borough President Gail Brewer, who has called for better evaluation of the city’s existing arts programs, said that students in small, non-arts focused high schools are likely to face the most barriers to securing an arts-focused diploma.

“That’s where we have problems,” she said.

Speaking to this year’s recipients of the arts-endorsed diploma, Chancellor Fariña said that many of the schools that will receive funding to hire new arts teachers have already been notified.

The need for more arts education hits close to home, Fariña said. Participating in a student-run musical competition, called SING, had a powerful effect on her nephew, who she said wasn’t a big fan of school when he started at Edward R. Murrow high school in Brooklyn.

“Arts turned my nephew around as a student as a person. There’s nothing about the arts that are a frill,” she said.

AnJuli’s former classmate, Regis Laraque, described his reasons for studying theater in equally passionate terms.

“A great philosopher once said, YOLO,” he said. You only live once.

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.