We Got This

De Blasio rejects Cuomo’s school takeover plan, citing city’s turnaround program

PHOTO: Twitter/NYC Mayor's Office
When Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled the Renewal program in November 2014, he said the city would "move heaven and earth" to help the struggling schools improve. (Photo: Twitter/NYC Mayor's Office)

Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday that the governor’s plan to let outside groups take over struggling schools is unnecessary in New York City, since the city is going to “enormous lengths” to turn around those schools.

He also repeated his pledge to close troubled schools that fail to improve after three years, and said that his authority over the city’s schools means that voters can hold him accountable for their progress.

“The fact is, mayoral control already makes it clear who is responsible for struggling schools in New York City – I am,” de Blasio told lawmakers at a budget hearing in Albany where he argued that mayoral authority over the city school system should be made permanent.

The mayor’s remarks follow Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s education-focused state budget proposal last month, which included a plan to appoint nonprofit groups, school-turnaround experts, or other school districts to oversee schools that have fallen on the state’s lowest performing list for three years. Under the proposed law, those “receivers” could restructure the low-ranked schools, overhaul their curriculums, and override labor agreements in order to fire “underperforming” teachers and administrators.

That proposal increased the already-intense pressure on de Blasio’s $150 million “School Renewal” program to turn around 94 of the city’s lowest performing schools by flooding them with extra services and teacher training. Critics question whether the plan will make changes drastic enough to end the schools’ struggles, and even state officials have said schools that fail to improve quickly should be shut down. (The pro-charter school group Families for Excellent Schools, which has criticized the city’s turnaround program, called on the state Wednesday to take control of 178 low-performing city schools.)

De Blasio responded to that pressure by saying that the turnaround program would provide the schools with “extraordinary support,” making the type of takeover recommended by Cuomo unnecessary. (The city teachers and principals unions have also come out against Cuomo’s takeover plan.) But de Blasio also took pains to insist that the city would shutter schools that do not make progress in three years or less.

“We will also not hesitate to close schools that have the opportunity to improve and do not,” he said.

In his testimony Wednesday, de Blasio listed several actions the city would take to improve the Renewal schools: replace unsatisfactory leaders, send in teams of veteran educators to lead the turnaround efforts, and add an extra hour of class time to each school’s day.

But it is unclear how quickly the city will take those steps, and whether they will extend beyond a small subset of struggling schools identified by the state as in need of immediate overhauls. So far, those two state-identified “out-of-time” schools are the only ones to see major shakeups: The city installed a veteran principal in one, and required the staffers at both to reapply for their jobs. Meanwhile, Renewal program schools do not expect to get the extra instructional hour until next school year.

As a result, some principals of the 94 schools are questioning the turnaround timeline that de Blasio has proposed. Because the program is just starting and this school year is reserved for mainly for planning, some say it is unrealistic to expect serious progress within three years.

Andrew Turay, the recently retired principal of a Bronx high school in the turnaround program, said last month that the city has been slow to roll out the program and has shared little information with schools about the changes they are expected to make. Echoing other principals, he said he agrees with the program’s philosophy but questions whether it will lead to major improvement at the schools within a short timeframe.

“I think it can work,” Turay said, ‘but I don’t know whether it can work in three years.”

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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.