Voter Turnout

After city outreach, more parents participate in education council elections

The de Blasio administration ran subway ads and held informational sessions encouraging parents to run for city education council seats.

The de Blasio administration asked parents to “raise their hand” — and they did.

The number of parents who participated in this year’s elections for local and citywide education advisory board seats surged this year following an outreach campaign that the administration called “Raise Your Hand for Our Kids,” officials said Tuesday.

Some 1,290 parents applied for unpaid spots on a citywide or community education council, a 77 percent increase over the number that ran in the previous election, in 2013. Nearly 2,300 parent-association leaders voted for candidates in this year’s election, a 60 percent rise above 2013’s turnout.

The number of candidates and voters was not evenly distributed among districts, and some council members said the small number of eligible voters per school and the councils’ limited advisory role keep more parents from participating. Still, they praised the administration for its efforts to draw more parents into the councils.

“We made clear at the outset that our administration would elevate and empower public school parents as never before,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement, “and that’s precisely what we’re seeing in these elections.”

All 32 of the city’s school districts have community education councils, or CECs, which replaced the locally elected school boards that were dismantled when the state granted Mayor Michael Bloomberg control of the city school system. The councils are made up mainly of elected parents who approve school zones, hold hearings on district spending plans, and give recommendations on certain policies.

Parents also make up four citywide councils that focus on high schools, non-native English speakers, special education, and the district for students with severe disabilities. The council members, who serve two-year terms, give feedback on policies and issue annual reports.

During the Bloomberg administration, critics complained that the city did little to recruit parents to join the councils. In 2011, some officials (including then-Public Advocate de Blasio) called the elections “deeply flawed and undemocratic,” and several parents filed a restraining order to halt the vote because they believed a series of education department errors had blocked some parents from participating.

To encourage more parents to run in this year’s education council elections, de Blasio mounted the outreach campaign that included subway ads in nine languages, dozens of information sessions, and thousands of robocalls to parents. Education department employees also called some principals to let them know whether their parent-association leaders had voted in the council elections.

Still, not every school district saw the same spike in parent participation this year.

For instance, some Brooklyn districts had about three times as many parents run for CEC seats as others, according to the borough president’s office. Many more parent-association officials voted in certain districts too. For example, Brooklyn’s District 20 (with 38 schools) had 124 votes cast, compared to 79 votes tallied in the Bronx’s District 9 (which has 30 schools).

Ellen McHugh, the public advocate’s appointee to the special education council, said that one way to increase involvement in the elections would be to allow all parents to vote, not just the parent-association president, secretary, and treasurer (or people they designate).

“If you limit the vote to only three people, what are you saying to others?” she said. “Your vote doesn’t count.”

She and other council members said that some parents do not run for CEC seats because they do not understand their function, while others feel the advisory boards have too little authority to be worth their time. But they also said the city’s outreach efforts appear to have sparked new interest in the groups, as have Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s regular meetings with CEC members.

“She really is going above and beyond her predecessor,” said Laurie Windsor, District 20’s CEC president. “One hundred times over.”

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.