At the Buzzer

Exclusive: City quietly launches intensive-support plan for group of troubled schools as deadline arrives

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Senior Deputy Chancellor Dorita Gibson (pictured at a conference in January) was among the officials who shared basic details of the city's struggling-school improvement plan with principals last week.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña and other top officials summoned about two-dozen principals to the Education Department headquarters for a private meeting last Thursday — exactly one week before the start of the school year — to unveil a long-awaited plan: the city’s scheme to turn around the principals’ struggling schools.

But the description that she and other officials offered was only a basic outline, according to people briefed on the plan, even though it is expected to launch on the first day of school.

The plan places the low-performing schools in an intensive-support group, dubbed the “School Achievement Initiative.” It harkens back to a special “Chancellor’s District” created for struggling schools nearly two decades ago, though department officials on Wednesday pushed back against that comparison.

The new three-year initiative will send support teams to the 23 state-identified struggling schools to diagnose their needs and offer individualized coaching for teachers and other assistance, according to officials. Aimee Horowitz, a Brooklyn and Staten Island high school superintendent, will now also oversee the 13 low-performing high schools that are part of the initiative.

The intervention plan is meant to satisfy federal requirements that say districts must begin “whole-school reforms” in long-struggling schools by the start of this school year. As that deadline approached, many schools were anxiously awaiting the city’s plan.

Educators at a few of the schools said this week that they are optimistic but want more information about the plan, which sticks to Fariña’s promise to prop up troubled schools rather than close them.

“If it’s done well, it could be something good for failing schools,” said the principal of a middle school in the initiative. But right now, he added, “It’s still in the baby stage.”

Last Thursday’s meeting was organized by Sharon Rencher, the chancellor’s senior adviser for school improvement, who is leading the struggling-schools initiative. Rencher gave a brisk PowerPoint presentation about the plan but no handouts, according to attendees. She and other officials said more details would be forthcoming and asked the principals not to pass on any of the information.

“There hasn’t been one document shared that we can look at,” said a Bronx principal who asked not to be named because of the order to keep the meeting details private. “They’re holding up everything until the mayor and the chancellor announce the initiative.”

Still, some details of the plan emerged at that “orientation meeting” and in follow-up consultations this week at some of the schools, according to people involved.

The initiative involves schools from across the city, though the bulk are in the Bronx and Brooklyn, according to a list of meeting attendees. The list includes Automotive High School and Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn, which have both been floundering for so long without having improvement plans in place that the state labels them “out-of-time schools.”

The department will dispatch support teams to each of the initiative schools — many of which rank among the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state based on student test scores and graduation rates. Each small team is responsible for a handful of schools, and their leaders include former principals and heads of school-support networks.

Brooklyn’s long-struggling Boys and Girls High School is part of the city's new "School Achievement Initiative" designed to turn around troubled schools.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Brooklyn’s long-struggling Boys and Girls High School is part of the city’s new “School Achievement Initiative” designed to turn around troubled schools.

Joshua Good, a former principal and network leader assigned to Automotive High School, told school staffers Tuesday that his team would be at the school “constantly,” according to a teacher. He added that the school will receive walk-through evaluations at the start, middle, and end of the school year in order to track its progress, the teacher said.

According to the teacher, there was no mention of extra funding to hire more teachers and counselors or adjustments to the enrollment policies that have left the school with one-third students with disabilities — a share far higher than the city average.

The Bronx principal said that one of his teachers asked their new support-team leader this week if the school would get any extra money for hiring. The leader, whose official title is “director of school redesign,” said, “categorically: no,” according to the principal.

“In my opinion,” said the Automotive teacher, the intervention plan “is more of the same, but with a different name.”

City officials applied for federal school-improvement grants in February to help fund the interventions at its lowest-ranked schools. Some of the details of the initiative echo ones that were in the applications.

For example, the applications say that each of the city’s lowest-ranked schools will get three formal visits per year along with a “complete NYCDOE team to assist” its principal. The application’s plan also calls for each struggling school to be paired with a higher-performing “sister school” it can learn from. The plan from February also says that principals of struggling schools could be replaced with more experienced ones, though that has not yet been suggested for the initiative schools.

City officials appear to have been waiting to finalize their plans for the struggling schools until they learned which schools received improvement grants. Some of the grants did not come through until August, which was when officials asked a math consultancy to start working with initiative schools as soon as this month.

“It’s a very short turnaround,” said David Howell, operations manager for the New York-based consultancy, called Metamorphosis Teaching Learning Communities.

Former city schools chief Rudy Crew formed the Chancellor’s District in 1996, which grew to include nearly 60 struggling schools before it was disbanded in 2003. The education department flooded the schools with extra materials, teachers, and training, but also issued them specific directives.

The model, which was embraced by the teachers union, resulted in higher reading scores for some students. But critics said it amounted to micro-management and argued that its limited success did not justify its expense.

At a June press conference, Fariña strongly denied that she was planning to establish her own version of a Chancellor’s District.

“There is no intention whatsoever of having a Chancellor’s District that puts struggling schools together,” she said.

Senior Deputy Chancellor Dorita Gibson argued Wednesday that even though the new initiative groups together struggling schools, it differs substantially from the old Chancellor’s District.

First, while the initiative puts the high schools under a single superintendent, the elementary and middle schools will remain in their own districts under their current superintendents, Gibson said. Also, all the schools will remain part of their self-selected support networks.

Second, the department will customize the support for each school in the initiative based on its needs, rather than mandate similar changes at every school, as was often the case with the Chancellor’s District, according to Gibson.

Gibson also insisted that the initiative would be ready to launch on the first day of school Thursday, and noted that some teachers in the initiative schools had already received training – on Wednesday.

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.