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SUNY makes rare move to close a Brooklyn charter school

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
SUNY Charter School Institute Executive Director Susan Miller Barker, SUNY trustee Joseph Belluck, and general counsel Ralph Rossi in 2014.

A Brooklyn charter school started by an ally of Mayor Bill de Blasio could become the first city charter school to be shut down in several years.

The SUNY Charter School Institute recommended Tuesday that New Hope Academy Charter School close at the end of this school year, citing the school’s academic struggles, high staff turnover, and a board unable to contain the school’s troubles. The closure — which must still be approved by SUNY trustees — would be a rarity for the city’s charter-school sector.

New Hope Academy, which serves about 380 elementary school students in East Flatbush, was founded in 2010 by Bishop Orlando Findlayter of New Hope Christian Fellowship in Brooklyn. (Findlayter made headlines last year after the mayor called a police official to ask about Findlayter’s arrest after he was stopped for driving with a suspended license.)

SUNY’s report notes that the school has been in violation of federal law by not having a functioning program for English language learners. Turnover at the school has been high, with 36 teachers leaving between the 2012-13 school year and fall 2014, and two principals also leaving that fall, according to the report. And though the school outperformed the district on state tests in 2011-12, it has lagged since then.

Older reports indicate the school’s problems stretch back to the spring of its first year, when SUNY reviewers wrote that “quality instruction is not evident.”

But charter schools, which must have their charters renewed after five years in order to stay open, rarely face closure so quickly — even when they aren’t top scorers. Often, struggling charter schools facing their first renewal deadline earn a short-term renewal of three or fewer years. (The city, which also directly oversees some charter schools, recently came under pressure from state officials to reduce the amount of time it gave struggling charter schools to improve and shortened some renewals to just 18 months.)

The SUNY Institute’s report says the school’s problems were too wide-ranging to justify even a short-term renewal. New Hope officials will have the chance to convince SUNY trustees otherwise on Feb. 19 before they decide on the school’s closure.

In a lengthy statement sent to Chalkbeat by a spokesman on behalf of the school’s principal and board, New Hope officials said the SUNY Institute had gotten their school wrong. They noted that the school had not been put on probation or cited for fiscal concerns, that is has devoted parent volunteers and a strong focus on the arts, and is a place “where children are learning and feel nurtured and are growing — in many ways that are not measured by test scores.” The school also did better than other schools with similar populations on the state English test in two of the last three years. 

“We admit our academics aren’t yet where we want them to be at this moment. But we believe in our team and our plan and we hope the SUNY Trustees will give us a second chance,” they wrote. 

If New Hope does survive, it would join a number of city charter schools that have managed to escape closure in recent years. Chancellor Carmen Fariña intervened early last year to offer Fahari Academy Charter School, a school authorized by the city, one more year to show improvements. The troubled UFT Charter School earned a last-minute, two-year lifeline in 2013, and Peninsula Preparatory Academy and Williamsburg Charter High School both survived closure attempts in 2012. The SUNY-authorized Harlem Day Charter School was restructured and taken over by the Democracy Prep network in 2011.

The city did close East New York Preparatory in 2010 and Ross Global Academy in 2011.

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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.