career day

State Regents sign off on new jobs-oriented diploma requirements

PHOTO: Geoff Decker

High school students will soon be able to opt out of a social studies Regents exam in favor of a test focused on job skills as a result of changes approved by the state’s Board of Regents on Monday morning.

The changes will offer new flexibility to the state’s rigid high-school testing regime, which previously required students to pass end-of-year exams in math, English, science and two social studies subjects. Students will now be able to have an exam in fields like culinary arts, accounting, or carpentry count as their fifth Regents exam if they have completed a related course of study.

The shift, which had been expected and is broadly supported by both union and business leaders, comes after years of debate about how to best prepare high school students for the world after graduation. New York state’s graduation rate is 75 percent, but even many graduates aren’t prepared for college-level coursework and must take remedial classes once they enroll in college. College readiness rates lag especially for black and Hispanic students.

In recent years, the state has focused on raising graduation standards—requiring students to pass the five Regents exams with a score of 65 and eliminating the “local diploma” option that had allowed many students to receive diplomas with lower scores. While that change didn’t affect statewide graduation rates, it did lead to fewer English language learners who graduated and advocates complained the tougher standards were unnecessarily restrictive because just a few missed points on a single Regents exam has stranded some students without diplomas.

The changes would allow for students to replace the fifth Regents exam with one of 13 career and technical education assessments. Students will also be able to replace the fifth exam with additional assessments for humanities and math and science, and, in the future, the arts.

Officials said that they had also established a “biliteracy pathway” that would include an assessment in a language other than English. State Education Commissioner John King said an Advanced Placement Spanish Literature exam could serve as one way for a student to receive graduation credits.

The new pathway for career and technical education programs like automotive repair and nursing is likely to have the biggest impact, since it may motivate students who have struggled to meet traditional graduation requirements and make it easier for them to earn a diploma. For years, the programs — now in 45 city high schools — had a reputation for housing low-performing students and providing substandard academic work, earning criticism from then-Public Advocate Bill de Blasio in 2012. More recently, the city has created programs focused on high-earning fields with in-demand jobs.

Officials said they hoped the changes would encourage more career and technical education programs like the highly-touted Pathways in Technology Early College High School in Crown Heights, which partners with IBM and trains students in computer engineering at a local college.

“In the whole CTE discussion, clearly there were people who heard those words and heard ‘vocational ed’ and saw it as the lesser pathway,” said Regent James Tallon, who warned that the stigma could stick without successful implementation of the new graduation requirements.

King said that more money from the state legislature was needed to support local efforts to expand CTE programs. He declined to specify how much was needed, but said that the amount would be a priority in the Board of Regents’ annual budget request.

Last year, 2,800 city students graduated with a CTE distinction, and Board of Regents Chancellor Chancellor Merryl Tisch said Monday that the new graduation requirements could spur the city to create 1,000 more seats in underserved areas.

“I think that’s a benchmark that the city is prepared to think about and prepared to meet,” Tisch said. “We are calling on the city, for whom we are working to turn around schools, to include CTE as a major part of their turnaround structure.”

Chancellor Carmen Fariña declined through a spokesperson to comment on how the state’s changes would affect the city’s plans for struggling schools. But she said she welcomed the changes as a way to support her agenda to expand CTE programs citywide.

“We are broadening our efforts across the City to ensure we are preparing our students for college as well as the jobs of today and tomorrow, and these new graduation standards reflect that goal,” Fariña said.

 

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.