legal wrangling

After judge says school leadership meetings are public, city tells principals they are not

Public Advocate Letitia James (center) and parent advocate Leonie Haimson (right), seen here in 2013, joined a lawsuit to make school leadership team meetings open to the public.

The city is advising principals that members of the public and the press are not permitted at school leadership meetings while it appeals a recent court ruling that said those meetings must be open to the public.

State law requires every city school to have a leadership team composed of the principal, parent association president, teachers union representative, along with an equal number of parents and staff members. The teams craft an annual list of goals and strategies for their schools and weigh in on major decisions, like the hiring of new principals and the placement of other schools in their buildings.

Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Peter Moulton ruled in April that those teams’ meetings are subject to open meetings laws. In the ruling, the judge said that the parent-educator teams “touch on the core functions of a public school,” which he called a public matter, “not a private concern limited to the families who attend a given public school.”

Chancellor Carmen Fariña told principals in an email Tuesday night that the city is appealing that decision, which the email said went “against a long-standing NYCDOE policy.” The message adds, “Please note that, at this time, SLT meetings are not open to the general public (i.e., people who are not members of the school community) or the press.”

Education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye said in a statement Wednesday that the city’s appeal “protected school communities.” Subjecting the leadership teams to open meetings laws, she said, “would impede discussions on private school-based matters such as personnel issues, individual student progress and school safety plans.”

The judge’s decision stemmed from a lawsuit filed last year by a retired Manhattan teacher who had been blocked from attending a leadership team meeting. Public Advocate Letitia James and the nonprofit Class Size Matters both joined that lawsuit against the city.

Their lawyers said Wednesday that they plan to take legal action to make sure the judge’s ruling is enforced while the city appeals it. They also rejected the department’s arguments for limiting access to the school leadership meetings, saying they are not the proper venue for discussing private student matters or safety plans, which are technically the responsibility of mandated school safety committees. The teams could still hold private “executive sessions” if they need to discuss confidential student or personnel issues, they noted.

Class Size Matters executive director Leonie Haimson said she was “very distressed and disappointed” by the city’s decision to appeal the ruling and by the guidance to principals to close the meetings to the public.

“This email really does conflict with a lot of their supposed interest in collaborating with parents and the community and being more transparent,” she said.

Haimson disputed the idea that barring the public from school leadership meetings is a “long-standing policy” by pointing to a 2011 education department slideshow that says the meetings are open to the public. The department spokeswoman said that part of the presentation was “incorrect” and had been updated.

James’ office declined to comment on the city’s decision to appeal.

In a separate lawsuit in 2013, a Staten Island teacher sued the city after he was barred from the leadership team meeting at his school. In that case, the judge ruled that the teams are not subject to open meetings rules.

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.