not going quietly

Brooklyn charters protest city’s closure decision, as at least one prepares to fight

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Fahari Academy Charter School, above, will close in June.

The two struggling charter schools that the city plans to close in June aren’t going down without a fight.

Both schools, Fahari Academy Charter School and the Ethical Community Charter School, were told last week that the city would not renew their charters. Now, both say the city has ignored their strengths and are pushing back, with Fahari hinting at possible legal action.

“We will exhaust all options to ensure that this decision is reconsidered and reversed so that we may remain the incredible place of opportunity we have become for our families, staff, and students,” Jason Starr, board chair of the Fahari Academy Charter School, wrote in a four-page statement.

“We ask you to restore our faith in your leadership by visiting our school and revising your renewal decision,” Annette Keane, principal of Ethical Community, wrote in a letter to Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

Fahari’s response in particular underscores an ongoing struggle for the city’s charter school office, which has had trouble closing schools in the past — both when it has tried to not renew an expiring charter, and when it has tried to revoke a charter mid-term. Low-performing schools, or ones in precarious financial positions, have successfully sued to remain open by proving in court that the city’s performance standards were moving targets and poorly communicated.

“The entire procedure utilized by the [charter school office] for revocation is riddled with inconsistencies and lacks a certain level of transparency,” a judge wrote in a 2012 ruling that overturned the city’s decision to close Williamsburg Charter High School.

Peninsula Preparatory Charter School also used the courts to stay open after the city attempted to close it in 2012. Fahari’s board has used the tactic, too, suing to keep the school open last year but withdrawing the lawsuit after Fariña agreed to give the school a one-year reprieve.

The situation has looked different for schools authorized by the State University of New York. Two SUNY-authorized schools set to close at the end of this year, UFT Charter School and Innovate Manhattan Charter School, had boards that voluntarily surrendered their charters (or in UFT’s, the charter for the school’s lower grades), in part because SUNY’s tightly enforced standards left little question that they would be closed.

Following the announcement on Friday, leaders at both Fahari and Ethical Community also criticized the city for giving the schools minimal advance notice that they were facing closure. Jason Starr, Fahari’s board chair, said he was shocked when the city informed the board.

“Neither Fahari’s Board of Trustees nor its administration were given notice of the DOE’s intentions, much less an opportunity to respond before the decision was made,” Starr said.

Keane, principal of Ethical Community, said she found out about 90 minutes before the city made its announcement, leaving her “completely blindsided by the media blitz that ensued.”

“Our families came to school shocked and confused, many in tears, on Friday morning,” Keane wrote in her letter to Fariña. “The Ethical Community Charter School believes it was unfair for you to deny our school the opportunity to share the news of our closure with our own community members.”

On Thursday afternoon, department spokeswoman Devora Kaye acknowledged in an email to reporters that the schools had been notified recently. In response to the schools’ criticism, she told Chalkbeat that the city had communicated the stakes and the timeline for its decisions with the schools.

“This was not a surprise,” Kaye said in a statement. “Each of these schools was given clear conditions with benchmarks for performance they had to meet to demonstrate they were best serving children. Both failed to do so.”

Thursday’s notice triggered a 30-day process, she added, during which each school’s board will get a chance to formally respond to the city’s decision.

Correction: A previous version misstated the Board of Regents’ role in approving the city’s non-renewal decisions. Unlike renewal decisions, no action from the Regents is needed to close charter schools through a non-renewal. 


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.