College and career readiness

Leaders highlight K-12 schools’ role in ‘Drive to 55’

Gov. Bill Haslam moderates the Drive to 55 Summit in Nashville, bringing together government, business and education leaders to discuss how to prepare students for college and work.

Emphasizing that successful careers take root in the early grades, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the state is reshaping K-12 education to align with Tennessee’s 3-year-old initiative to boost postsecondary graduation rates.

Among ongoing improvements: higher academic standards, a new assessment that will better gauge whether students are college- or career-ready, and an updated track to tie high school career technical clusters to Tennessee’s workforce needs.

“This has reorganized our vision around really what K-12 education is about: success after graduation,” McQueen said Monday at a Drive to 55 Summit in Nashville.

Speaking during a roundtable discussion moderated by Gov. Bill Haslam, McQueen said that, now more than ever, the question driving the Department of Education in behalf of students is: “How do we set you up for what success will actually look like once you walk across that stage and outside of that high school? “

In 2013, Haslam initiated “Drive to 55” to get 55 percent of Tennesseans equipped with a college degree or certificate by the year 2025. The policy package largely focuses on the state’s postsecondary institutions, funneling money into workforce development programs and, most famously the Tennessee Promise scholarship, which provides a pathway for Tennessee high school seniors to attend state community and technology colleges tuition-free for two years.

The initiative has reframed the conversation about all levels of education, casting school and training as the means to a healthy state economy.

McQueen outlined some of the department’s biggest challenges to increasing college readiness: providing access to rigorous classes, such as advanced placement classes and dual-enrollment courses with community colleges, that prepare students for postsecondary education; and the perception that a post-secondary education isn’t necessary in today’s economy. The commissioner said the state must send a message to its students that they can — and must — continue their education after high school.

“I continually hear when I go throughout the state that college is not for everyone,” McQueen said. “You don’t have to go and get a Ph.D.; that may not be your pathway. But going into a postsecondary program where you can get a credential, a diploma or a degree is absolutely necessary in today’s day and age, and we have to continue talking about that message.”

One of the most visible impacts of Drive to 55 on K-12 education is the expansion of a high school math program called Seamless Alignment and Integrated Learning Support, or SAILS. The program is a joint effort of the Department of Education and community colleges to help high school seniors with low ACT scores catch up in math before they graduate, using in-person instruction and computer modules, so they do not have to take remedial courses in community college. In 2014-15 in its second year, 91 percent of participating students passed their SAILS course, meaning they should be ready for college math. Mike Krause, executive director of Drive to 55, estimates that SAILS has saved Tennessee students a collective $64 million by helping them complete postsecondary degrees on time.

McQueen announced that the Department of Education will adapt SAILS’ technology component for students taking Algebra I. “This should not just be for a select group of students. What can we learn from SAILS that can be applied to all students?” she asked.

"... A degree is absolutely necessary in today's day and age, and we have to continue talking about that message."Candice McQueen, state education commissioner

Krause lauded high school guidance counselors and volunteer mentors through Tennessee Promise who are working with high school students to encourage them to apply to college — and fill out the necessary paperwork.

This fall, in the first year of Tennessee Promise, about 15,800 students used the new program to enroll in community college or technical schools. Tennessee also boasts the most students nationally to complete the paperwork for financial aid for college — a requirement of Tennessee Promise.

“The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a horrific form, but it’s also the gateway to financial aid,” Krause said. “With the right supports, students complete the FAFSA.”

State Sen. Delores Gresham, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, said a bevy of recent education reforms in Tennessee — including new academic standards, the new TNReady assessment and increased school choice — are moves in the right direction and must be sustained.

“Any loss of momentum in the education reforms we have implemented in recent years would be a real setback,” said Gresham (R-Somerville). “Above all, there has to be this relentless improvement in instruction and, again, a maintenance of a sense of urgency. There is not a moment to lose; there is not a child we want to lose.”

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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.