By the numbers

New York City’s graduation rate hits 70 percent for first time

The city’s four-year graduation rate hit 70 percent in 2015, a record high for New York City and a two-point increase from the previous year.

Graduation rates among black and Hispanic students still lag far behind white and Asian students, but all groups saw their numbers increase. The rate for students with disabilities and those still learning English also moved up but remain far below the city average.

The city’s August graduation-rate jump was accompanied by a rise in the statewide rate to 80.3 percent, and an all-time high national rate of 82 percent. The numbers represent a victory for Mayor Bill de Blasio, who can claim a steady increase in the graduation rate since he took office in 2014. Since 2005, the graduation rate has improved by 24 points.

“Today’s announcement of more students graduating than ever and fewer dropping out speaks to the critical importance of maintaining the momentum we are seeing in education here in New York City,” de Blasio said in a statement. Last year, he set a goal for the city to achieve an 80 percent graduation rate by 2026.

The city graduation rate’s continuing rise is sure to elicit questions about the meaning of those numbers, especially following a wave of media reports last year detailing incidents where schools changed students’ grades or awarded them unearned credits in order to help them graduate. Outside New York, steadily climbing graduation rates in districts across the country have stirred doubts about the value of a diploma.

Part of the skepticism stems from the disconnect between high school graduation and college-readiness rates. Just over 49 percent of the city’s high school graduates last year were prepared for college-level work, according to one measure based on students’ standardized test scores.

“I want the graduations to go up with substance, with backing, otherwise it’s a ruse,” Regent Kathleen Cashin said.

As usual, the graduation results differed sharply according to students’ race and whether they have special needs.

While 85 percent of Asian students and 82 percent of white students earned their diplomas by August, only 65.4 percent of black students and 64 percent of Hispanic students had hit that mark. Among those groups, Hispanic and Asian students made the biggest gains this year — increases of 2.5 and 2.4 percentage points, respectively — while black and white students made slighter progress.

Meanwhile, the citywide dropout rate fell less than one point, to 9 percent. The dropout rate for Hispanic students, 11.9 percent, is still more than twice the rate for white students.

Students with special needs made progress, but still trail far below their peers. Just over 41 percent of students with disabilities earned diplomas last year, as did 40.5 percent of students who are still learning English.

Based on the state’s June graduation rates, New York City’s graduation rate increased by three percentage points to 67.2 percent.

Graduation rates have continued to increase even though the state’s graduation requirements became more stringent. Starting in 2012, students had to pass five Regents exams with a score of 65 to earn a diploma, instead of the previously required 55.

The exams are expected to get harder as the state continues matching exams to the more difficult Common Core standards. In response, Regents spent Monday morning discussing a number of alternative graduation pathways, including an appeals process for students who score between a 60 and 64, project-based assessments for students who fail Regents tests, and substituting a skills-based certificate for the fifth required Regents exam.

For now, the share of New York’s students earning diplomas is higher than ever.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said that since the state has nearly reached its 80 percent graduation rate goal, it’s time to set a new statewide benchmark.

“We’ve got to, as a Board, identify what is that next level,” she said.

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.