firing back

Charter CEO: Fariña has 'obligation' to release data after push-out claims

Some charter school leaders are taking a quieter approach to lobbying the de Blasio administration. Here, posters from a charter schools rally in October.

New York City Charter School Center CEO James Merriman is challenging Chancellor Carmen Fariña to prove that some charter schools have illicit enrollment practices, after she claimed schools were bending the rules on Thursday.

After Fariña suggested that some charter schools were pushing kids out ahead of state tests and selectively recruiting high-performing students, Merriman fired back with a 400-word statement that called on the chancellor to use her authority to investigate her suspicions. Merriman said that the center had “no evidence” that charters counseled out students before testing.

“The NYC DOE has access to enrollment and discharge data and now has an obligation to release such data not just for every charter school but for every district school as well,” he said. “I call on the Chancellor to instruct the DOE to do so promptly.”

“To do anything else is to smear an entire group of public schools and their teachers and leaders who work very hard every day to educate children in this city,” he said, adding that corrective action should be taken in schools where there is evidence of improper discharging of students.

The response was unusually forceful, given that Fariña has cultivated a cordial relationship with many charter schools even as Mayor Bill de Blasio has more frequently clashed with the charter sector.

A spokeswoman for Fariña emailed Thursday night to temper the chancellor’s remarks, which came during a brief talk with reporters.

“The Chancellor believes schools should share best practices, serve English Language Learners and students with disabilities—and together, we will move our City forward,” said the spokeswoman, Devora Kaye. “As she stated in her remarks, Chancellor Fariña sits on the NYC Charter School Center Board and is committed to working closely with all stakeholders who are invested in improving student outcomes.”

Kaye did not say if Fariña would authorize the release of student discharge data that Merriman called for.

Fariña, a voting board member of Merriman’s organization, has visited many charter schools — focusing on those serving large shares of high-needs students — and brought a few into her signature initiative, the Learning Partners Program.

Merriman called her a “valued member of the board for whose services I and the other board members are very grateful.”

“We stand ready to work with the Chancellor, for whom I have nothing but the utmost respect, to ensure that we not only have the highest-quality charter sector but also the most responsible,” he added. “This work will be made easier if we have this conversation based strictly on data available to all and not on anecdotes or generalized characterizations.”

In his response, Merriman also took issue with Fariña’s suggestion that some charter schools recruit students based on academic achievement, a practice that would be against state charter law. Fariña said charters should fill open seats with more than “just kids who get postcards because they’re level 3s or 4s to come to the school.”

“If there is evidence that the Chancellor is relying on in making this claim, she should immediately release it so that appropriate corrective measures may be taken,” Merriman said.

Merriman acknowledged that charter schools should enroll more students with disabilities and English language learners, a disparity that Fariña also highlighted. But he said the chancellor should also call attention to “far more troubling and gaping inequalities among the schools she oversees,” referring to screened district schools that select students based on factors like test scores and attendance.

Merriman’s full statement is below:

“This morning, Chancellor Fariña made some very serious allegations about the charter school sector and  they require a detailed response.

“First, we have seen no evidence that charter schools are counseling children out prior to test time as she has suggested is a not uncommon practice. The NYC DOE has access to enrollment and discharge data and now has an obligation to release such data not just for every charter school but for every district school as well. I call on the Chancellor to instruct the DOE to do so promptly.  To do anything else is to smear an entire group of public schools and their teachers and leaders who work very hard every day to educate children in this city.  Where the data shows such a pattern for any school, corrective action should be instituted immediately.

“Second, the Chancellor also seems to have alleged that at least some charter schools, all of which enroll their students via random lottery, are selecting students based on test scores. We have seen no evidence of this, either at the beginning of the year or anytime thereafter. While selecting students based on their academic achievement is a wide-spread practice throughout the district, charter schools cannot do so.  If there is evidence that the Chancellor is relying on in making this claim, she should immediately release it so that appropriate corrective measures may be taken.

“Third, Chancellor Fariña rightly called on charter schools to enroll more students receiving special education services and English Language Learners.  The NYC Charter School Center, together with many charter school leaders, has made access to charter schools for these children a priority; and there is more work for us to do.  However, in calling out charter schools, Chancellor Fariña inexplicably ignores far more troubling and gaping inequalities among the schools she oversees.  We and many others have documented the startling differences among district schools that are in close geographic proximity, not only in the numbers of students receiving special education services and who are English Language Learners, but also even more perniciously by race and class.

“We stand ready to work with the Chancellor, for whom I have nothing but the utmost respect, to ensure that we not only have the highest-quality charter sector but also the most responsible.  This work will be made easier if we have this conversation based strictly on data available to all and not on anecdotes or generalized characterizations.”

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.