Algebra for All

In first ‘Algebra for All’ effort, city will push schools to centralize fifth grade math

In a change that could shift the way elementary schools work across New York City, officials want more fifth-graders to learn math from teachers chosen to focus on the subject, rather than their general classroom teachers.

The city will begin centralizing fifth-grade math next year at interested schools, according to a memo sent to principals this week, and will spread the policy further over the next five years. That memo and other documents posted online for principals describe the change as the first step in the city’s campaign to make sure more eighth-graders are prepared for algebra, a goal Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled last fall.

“We know this initiative is a big step forward,” an education department document reads, “and are working to develop both the operational and instructional supports schools will need to be successful.”

At most of the city’s elementary schools, core subjects like reading and math are taught by the same classroom teachers. In the memo, officials asked interested principals to designate fifth-grade teachers to take on the central math role for their grade.

Some researchers say quality of math instruction increases with a designated teacher, especially since many elementary-level teachers aren’t excited about math or don’t feel prepared to teach it.

“It’s almost like people who are afraid of math flock to elementary school education,” said Clara Hemphill, one of the authors of a 2015 report from the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs that called for more intensive math teaching in fifth grade.

The introduction of the Common Core standards have added to the complexity of the task. Last year, about 41 percent of city fifth-graders the state’s math exam. Meanwhile, recent statistics show that few are prepared for upper-level math by the time they reach high school.

“With the Common Core, we’re expecting more mathematics understanding from teachers, and this enables districts to focus resources,” said Diane Briars, the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

“Departmentalizing” math allows teachers with math anxiety to focus on other subjects, Hemphill said, and leaves those passionate about math to teach it. That’s what happened at the Girls Prep charter schools when they separated math instruction, according to Ian Rowe, the leader of the Public Prep charter school network.

“The folks who are our dedicated math teachers love the fact that they can really dive deep and really focus on not just procedural math but really getting our scholars critical thinking skills in math,” he said.

Some schools have long used or experimented with more specialized approaches. P.S. 183 Robert L. Stevenson and the Lower Lab School, both on the Upper East Side, have separate math instruction, Hemphill said.

Others were surprised that this would be the city’s move to improve math instruction.

Darlene Cameron, principal of STAR Academy-P.S. 63 in the East Village, said she would have questions about placing the responsibility for a grade’s math instruction in the hands of a single teacher, especially since so many students are already far behind when they reach fifth grade.

“Are people looking at the fifth-graders we have today? Many of them are still working on basic, single-digit multiplication,” she said.

It’s unclear how many schools the city would like to include in the new plan. Education department officials said the training would be research-based and that schools can choose to participate.

According to the posted overview of the initial “Algebra for All” initiatives, the first wave of participating teachers will have three days of training this spring, 12 days of training over the summer, and sessions throughout next school year.

To Courtney Allison, the deputy director of Math for America and a former sixth-grade teacher, encouraging schools to departmentalize fifth-grade math is a smart idea that could help make sure students arrive prepared for middle school.

“It’s exciting to see them turn their attention to mathematics,” she said of the city.

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.