Tennessee

Five ways White House Director David Johns wants to help black students succeed

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN

White House Director David Johns admittedly gets a little emotional when he talks about improving educational opportunities for black students he affectionally calls “babies” – a nod to his Twitter hashtag #TeachTheBabies.

“Excellence is absent when talking about black kids in education,” said Johns who leads the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans. The two-year-old initiative seeks to spark a conversation between school districts across the country on ways to educate low-income black students. “We live in a society where we believe black students aren’t smart. We hear that more black men are in prison than in college and that’s not true. We need to do a better job of policing what’s said about our babies.”

Johns was one of several guest speakers during the U.S. Department of Education’s “Partners in Progress” back-to-school bus tour who stopped in Memphis Monday.

The visit came shortly after Mayor A C Wharton announced plans to raise the quality of life and achievement for the city’s young African-American and Hispanic men through an initiative called “Inspiring Young Men of Color.” The program will bring together leaders from Memphis non-profits, businesses and schools to study the literacy, health and criminal justice barriers non-white students face.

Johns visited Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, Ford Road and Freedom Preparatory Academy and met with Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson II and Elliot Smalley, chief of staff for the state-run Achievement School District.

Johns participated in an “education rally” where he encouraged students to commit to earning a two- or four-year degree.

“You must pursue your purpose, and what God has for you…” he said.

Here are five takeaways from  Chalkbeat TN’s conversation with Johns.

1.  Black parents must be meaningfully engaged in their child’s eduction.

“We don’t give the black family enough credit,” Johns said. “I have yet to meet a parent who didn’t want a better life for their child. Educators need to be a conduit for helping make the change. They need to distill complex education jargon and turn it into information parents can use. A student’s achievement level can be directly correlated to their parents’ income and level of education.”

2. Throw away the argument that black students don’t test well.

“No Child Left Behind doesn’t mandate the kind of high-stakes teaching to the test that that no parent or educator wants to see our children endure,” Johns said.  “Assessment in its purest form is essential.  There are many ways it happens, from informal, formal and summative.  It’s important for educators to recognize the stereotype threat research in testing (black students).  The key is to not over-test or teach to the test.”

3. Acknowledge that black teachers can have a positive impact on black students.

“I taught kindergarten in New York City,” he said. “I was the only black male classroom teacher. Diversity in the workplace has its benefits.  Research shows that having a black teacher gives affirmation for black students.”

4.  Quality pre-kindergarten through higher learning opportunities is a necessity.

“More energy needs to be put in place to form collaboration between pre-K through 12th grade and higher education so that students are prepared to go to college,” Johns said. “I’ve seen in some cities where there’s a focus on pre-kindergarten, but the work is ensuring that investments are cradle-to-career.”

5. Pre-kindergarten factors into the development of a black student.

“We have to make sure early learners are in a high-quality program,” Johns said. “For example, Latino students are sometimes kept at home and are least likely to be enrolled in a program.  When they are enrolled, it is a quality program.  The work for the African American community is in improving program quality.  Black students may be enrolled in a program, but they are not always in a quality one.”

Read more about the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans here.

Contact Tajuana Cheshier at [email protected] and (901) 730-4013.

Follow us on Twitter: @TajuanaCheshier@chalkbeattn.

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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.