Voter Turnout

Surprise ‘no’ vote at PEP muddles de Blasio’s mayoral control position

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
From left, mayoral appointees Ben Shuldiner, Lori Podvesker and Vanessa Leung at a Panel for Educational Policy meeting in April. All three voted in favor of all of the city's colocation proposals this week.

A surprise no vote by the city’s education policy-making panel on Wednesday night highlights the fine line that Mayor Bill de Blasio must walk while lobbying lawmakers to keep control of the school system.

Roberto Soto-Carrión, a consistent supporter of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposals since the mayor appointed him to the panel 14 months ago, cast the decisive vote against the city’s plan for where to open Success Academy Midwood, a charter school, in 2016.

The vote surprised other panel members and even seemed to catch the de Blasio administration off guard. It marked only the second time in the 13-year history of mayoral control that the panel, whose 13 members include eight chosen by the mayor, rejected a city proposal. (The first rejection happened last year, just months into de Blasio’s tenure, and was reversed a month later.)

“I was a little shocked,” said Isaac Carmignani, a mayoral appointee who voted for the proposal.

The six yeas for the proposal were Staten Island Borough President representative Kamillah Payne-Hanks and mayoral appointees Vanessa Leung, Ben Shuldiner, Miguelina Zorilla-Aristy, Lori Podvesker and Carmignani. The four nays were Soto-Carrión, Robert Powell, the Bronx representative, Laura Zingmond, the Manhattan representative, and Elzora Cleveland, a mayoral appointee; Fred Baptiste, the Brooklyn representative. Two member, Norm Fruchter and Queens’ Deborah Dillingham were not there.

The rejection comes at a time when legislators are scrutinizing de Blasio’s control of the school system, and it suggests the delicacy of the mayor’s position in lobbying to keep control while also distancing himself from criticism leveled at his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg.

The law authorizing mayoral control expires at the end of June, and state lawmakers are considering whether to renew it for as many as three years, as de Blasio would like, or as little as one year.

On the one hand, the no vote undermines de Blasio’s argument — which he has been making strenuously to legislators — that mayoral control allows city policies to be made quickly and efficiently.

Success CEO Eva Moskowitz took aim at that claim in her reaction to the vote. “If Mayor de Blasio wants mayoral control, he should show he’s willing to use it,” she said in a statement. “If he won’t use it, then someone else needs to take control of the city’s schools.”

On the other hand, the no vote offers de Blasio ammunition to counter criticism that mayoral control means there are no checks on the mayor’s power. While that has not been a substantial theme of school governance talks in Albany this spring, it was a major line of attack on how Bloomberg ran the school system the last time mayoral control was renewed, in 2009. Bloomberg famously fired three panel members in 2004 the night before they planned to vote against a proposal to impose stricter promotion standards based on state test scores.

“I don’t think this is an indication that the mayor has no control,” said Laura Zingmond, a panel member appointed by the Manhattan borough president who also voted against Success co-location on Wednesday. “You don’t want a tyrant.”

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said the city was “disappointed in the vote” but emphasized the value of listening to the public on education issues, something de Blasio promised in his campaign to do. The Success co-location proposal had received sharp criticism from representatives of the middle school that had been slated to share space.

“Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor [Carmen] Fariña are committed to meaningful dialogue with all stakeholders when making important decisions that impact the education of our city’s students and lead to improved student outcomes,” the spokeswoman, Devora Kaye, said in a statement. She pointed out that two other space plans involving Success Academy were approved, as was a co-location involving a new Icahn charter school in the Bronx.

How the panel’s power dynamics might affect the legislature’s mayoral control negotiations is not clear. The legislative session officially ends next Wednesday, but officials in Albany said they’re likely to stay longer because talks between the state’s leaders have moved slowly.

At least one lawmaker praised the panel’s vote. Rodneyse Bichotte, an assemblywoman whose district includes Andries Hudde Junior High School, where Success Academy Midwood had been proposed to open, said she discussed the vote with lawmakers on Thursday.

Bichotte, a Hudde graduate, said she was “partially surprised” to hear that the proposal was rejected but said she agreed with the decision. “It was a great thing,” she said.

One remaining mystery is what caused Soto-Carrión, the son of Administration for Children’s Services Commissioner Gladys Carrión who has been a staunch supporter of city proposals, to turn against the proposal.

He had not previously expressed concerns about the proposal during briefings with city officials, other members said. At the meeting, Soto-Carrión, who did not respond emails seeking comment, said he was voting against it because had safety concerns about the co-location.

Elzora Cleveland, the other mayoral appointee who voted against the proposal, said she had not spoken to Soto-Carrión since the vote but thought he might have changed his mind once he learned more about the proposal during the meeting.

“In many instances hearing what’s presented to us at that time can change someone’s opinion,” Cleveland said. “It really can.”

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.