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Poll: Voters oppose giving mayor ‘sole’ control of schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

From the start of his tenure 17 months ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio has vowed to be more inclusive of parents, teachers and community members in his education policy decisions. Whether he’s followed through on that pledge is up for debate, but voters still want him to give up some power over the school system, according to a new poll.

By a 2-1 margin, 969 registered voters in a Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday said they opposed allowing the mayor to “retain complete control over public schools.” Sixty percent said other elected officials should have more of a say.

The results could pose a challenge for de Blasio, who climbed to power by criticizing mayoral control under his predecessor Mayor Michael Bloomberg as too undemocratic and vowed to reform the process. De Blasio wants the state legislature to establish permanent mayoral control before it expires June 30.

Under the current mayoral control law, the mayor appoints eight of 13 members on the city’s Panel for Educational Policy, which approves co-location plans, school closures, and billions of dollars worth of contracts. While the Department of Education has added some changes to the public feedback process and worked more closely with schools facing co-locations, some critics say it’s hard to tell the difference between mayoral control under de Blasio and Bloomberg.

“He made a lot of promises that he has not followed through on at all,” said Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters and board member of NYC Kids PAC, a parent organization that endorsed de Blasio in the 2013 Democratic primary.

Voters’ support for mayoral control has never been total. Six years ago, when mayoral control was last up for renewal, 60 percent said they thought Bloomberg should give up control of schools — even as more than half approved of Bloomberg’s handling of schools.

De Blasio didn’t fare well on other parts of this month’s poll, which also asked voters for their thoughts on his overall job performance and his handling of schools. His approval ratings on both questions fell to among their lowest levels since he took office.

There was a clear racial divide, however. Though his ratings fell with black and Hispanic voters, they still approved of de Blasio by a 68-19 and 48-32 percent margin, respectively, compared to 34-56 percent for white voters. Chancellor Carmen Farina also earned a 32 percent job approval rating, her lowest ever.

The poll asked voters to weigh in some other hot-button education issues. Thirty-nine percent of voters said the city should have more charter schools, while 17 percent say there should be fewer and 35 percent said the number school stay the same.

Voters were also divided on whether students should be allowed to refuse to take standardized tests, as 47 percent said they should be allowed to opt out, while 49 percent said they should not.

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.