Tennessee

Meet Chalkbeat Tennessee’s newest reporter

It’s been about a month since we launched Chalkbeat Tennessee and we want to thank all of our readers for their interest in our coverage so far. Last week we introduced you to Daarel Burnette, our Tennessee bureau chief, and this week we want you to get to know Jackie Zubrzycki, our newest hire.

Jackie, and our other reporters in New York and Colorado, answered questions like why they decided to join Chalkbeat and which teacher most helped them to get where they are today.

Jaclyn (Jackie) Zubrzycki, reporter jackie

1. When you were hired: October 2013

2. Where you worked before & why you decided to join Chalkbeat: I covered urban school districts and leadership for Education Week and lived in Washington, D.C., where I also taught for two years and worked at an environmental nonprofit. I came to Chalkbeat because I was interested in being closer to the stories I was telling than I got to be as a national reporter.

Memphis is a great place to be exploring how people are trying to improve schools, and the results – intended and unintended – of that work.  It’s a story with national implications. I’m also looking forward to learning about how education fits into a city with such a fascinating history, and how schools affect the quality of people’s lives here.

I was also drawn to Chalkbeat’s start-up energy and its mission: Providing nuanced, independent journalism about what’s working and what’s not working in education.

3. What story you are most proud of: I like stories that leave you with a question. I wrote about some of the issues that came up in New Orleans after most of the city’s teachers had been laid off and were replaced by a younger, less-experienced group of teachers. That change came along with a complex set of questions about community, race, and what it means for schools to be “better,” and I finished writing knowing there was a lot left to learn and tell. A teenager who was expelled after getting something like 240 detentions from a very strict charter school surprised me when it turned out that he actually loved his school, despite its strict rules. Reporting about Memphis schools for Education Week left me very curious about what comes next.

I also like trying to understand how education and schools interact with other parts of society. For example, one story showed how schools and the juvenile justice  system often fail to collaborate, which means kids in many states can fall through the cracks when they try to return from juvenile detention centers to public schools. I spoke to a boy who was just getting back from a facility who had a maturity many of my friends would envy. I also wrote about how many kids with low test scores in Detroit are suffering from high blood lead levels.

I’m also on a mission to disprove researchers’ assumptions that reporters always oversimplify their work. Here’s a piece on Responsive Classroom, for instance.

My most-read story ever, however, was about whether schools should still teach cursive. It turns out people have very strong opinions about handwriting!

4. Teacher who most helped you get to where you are today: The teachers who have helped me most in recent years are all the teachers in my life now: My mom, who teaches third grade; my many friends who are current and former teachers; and my former colleagues, whose hard work, humor, and thoughtfulness still inspire me. It was a teacher-friend who encouraged me to give journalism a try!

My choir directors over the years, my yoga teachers, and my high school English teachers come to mind as people who both challenged me and kept me grounded.

5. Your most embarrassing or funny reporting moment: When I was reporting on New Jersey schools, one district spokeswoman who shall remain unnamed told me that some of the construction contracts in the district are still tied to the mafia. (!) That led to a conversation about a mob-funded wedding and my own stories about a distant uncle’s ties to the Polish mob.

After about 5 minutes of exchanging stories and laughing, though, she got really serious: “But please, don’t report on that…I want you to LIVE!”

Also, while I’ve got your attention: For readers’ reference, I pronounce my last name Zoo – Brick – Ee. Since I’ve started reporting, no one has asked if they could call me “Ms. Zoo,” which my middle schoolers in Washington were dying to do. 

E-mail Jackie [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @JZubrzycki.

 

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.