'Summer Slide'

Memphis leaders hope first-ever summer learning academies yield lessons about closing the achievement gap

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Students demonstrate ancient Chinese martial arts during a showcase for parents at the end of Shelby County Schools' 2017 summer learning academy at Alcy Elementary School.

When 11-year-old Stefani Oliver starts back to school next month in Memphis, she’ll know a lot of new things — like some martial arts moves from ancient China and how to make glittery slime for a science project.

But the rising sixth-grader likely would have missed those experiences if she hadn’t attended Shelby County Schools’ first-ever summer learning academy, a free six-week program aimed at keeping the district’s youngest minds active and engaged.

“Having her here made me feel good as a parent,” said Talia Oliver, Stefani’s mom, about the academy hosted at Alcy Elementary School. “This program kept the learning going for them.”

Stefani was among about 6,300 students who participated in the K-5 academy at one of 26 schools across Memphis. While attendance went up and down, the reach exceeded well beyond the 5,500 students initially targeted when Superintendent Dorsey Hopson announced the initiative in March.

The academy wrapped up last week with students taking assessments to gauge their summertime growth in math and reading. Those students will be tracked in the upcoming school year to see if the experience makes a difference academically.

Hopson, who has expressed openness to switching to year-round school, said the data will be useful to determine if a calendar change makes sense. “Clearly there’s a huge need here. The research shows the summer learning loss is real,” he said during a radio broadcast in May.

Teachers who led the academies said working with smaller groups of students helped create a learning environment that was positive, fun and productive.

“I think they’ll see a growth in test scores,” predicts Tresa Taylor, a fourth-grade teacher at Germanshire Elementary School.

Within Shelby County Schools, where 60 percent of children live in poverty, parents often don’t reinforce schooling during the summer — “not for lack of trying,” Taylor said, “but because parents don’t know what to do in the summer.”

The resulting summer learning loss contributes to a widening achievement gap with their more affluent peers, who have greater access to enriching summer activities that range from library time to traveling to interesting places.

The learning academies were designed to reinforce old lessons, as well as teach new ones — and without the pressure of teaching to state-mandated tests. The days included weekly field trips, time for reading, and healthy meals.

“It’s supposed to review and enrich our children to prepare for the next grade in addition to having fun,” said Latisha Brown, an assistant principal at Germanshire, who coordinated the academy at Alcy.

The initiative was funded mostly from federal grants designated to support students from low-income families; the rest came from Shelby County Schools.

Celebrating the end of the academy last week with her daughter, Oliver offered only one critique: she thinks the program should be expanded to more grades.

“Students are falling behind in middle school too,” she said, “and it would be great to prepare for high school.”

Chalkbeat reporter Helen Carefoot contributed to this report.

breaking

A student is in custody after Noblesville West Middle School shooting that injured another student and teacher

Police asses the scene outside Noblesville High School after a shooting at Noblesville West Middle School on May 25, 2018 (Photo by Kevin Moloney/Getty Images)

A male student shot and injured a teacher and another student at Noblesville West Middle School on Friday morning, police said.

Noblesville police Chief Kevin Jowitt said the shooting suspect asked to leave a class and returned armed with two handguns. The suspect, who police said appeared to be uninjured, is in custody and has not been identified by police.

The teacher, 29-year-old Jason Seaman, was in “good” condition Friday evening at Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital, police said. The female student, who was not identified by police, was in critical condition at Riley Hospital for Children.

News outlets were reporting that Seaman intervened to stop the shooter, but authorities said they could not confirm that on Friday afternoon.

The Noblesville Police Department has a full-time school resource officer assigned to the school who responded to the incident, Jowitt said. Local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies also responded to the shooting.

“We do know that the situation resolved extremely quickly,” Jowitt said. “We don’t know what happened in the classroom, so I can’t make any kinds of comments about what [the resource officer’s] involvement was.”

Students were evacuated to Noblesville High School on Friday morning, where families met them.

Jowitt said an additional threat was made at the high school, but they had “no reason to believe it’s anything other than a communicated threat.”

Police continue to investigate. They said they do not believe there are additional suspects. Noblesville Police spokesman Bruce Barnes could not say how the student acquired the guns, but he said search warrants have been issued.

Noblesville West Middle School enrolls about 1,300 students. Noblesville is a suburb of Indianapolis, about 20 miles north in Hamilton County. The district has about 10,500 students.

The frenzied scenes Friday outside the school have become sadly familiar. Already, there have been 23 school shootings in 2018 that involved someone being injured or killed, according to media tallies.

Just last week, 10 people were killed and 13 others were injured in a shooting at Santa Fe High School outside Houston. A student at the school has been arrested and charged.

In February, 17 people — 14 students and three staff — were shot and killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and a 19-year-old faces multiple charges.  The Parkland tragedy set off a wave of student activism across the country — including in Indianapolis — calling for stricter gun control.

“We’ve had these shootings around the country,” said Noblesville Mayor John Ditslear. “You just never think it could happen in Noblesville, Indiana. But it did.”

Noblesville Schools Superintendent Beth Niedermeyer praised the “heroic” efforts of school staff and students, saying they followed their training on how to react to an active shooter situation.

Barnes also hinted at the broader trauma that school shootings can have on students and communities.

“We ask for your prayers for the victims in this case,” he said. “I think that would include a lot of kids, not only ones that were truly the victims in this case, but all these other kids that are trying to make sense of this situation.”

Watch the press conference:


A Chalkbeat reporter is on the scene:

In a pattern that has become routine, Democratic and Republican politicians offered prayers on Twitter.

temporary reprieve

Parents score a temporary victory in slowing the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Protesters gathered at the education department's headquarters to protest a recent set of closure plans.

A judge blocked the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school Thursday — at least for now.

Three families from P.S. 25/the Eubie Blake School filed a lawsuit in March backed by the public interest group Advocates for Justice, arguing the city’s decision to close the school was illegal because the local elected parent council was not consulted.

Brooklyn Supreme Court judge Katherine Levine did not make a final ruling Thursday about whether the closure plan violated the law. But she issued a temporary order to keep the school open while the case moves forward.

It was not immediately clear when the case will be resolved or even if the school will remain open next year. “We are reviewing the stay and will determine an appropriate course of action once the judge makes a final decision on the case,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in a statement.

The education department said the school has hemorrhaged students in recent years and is simply too small to be viable: P.S. 25 currently enrolls just 94 students in grades K-5.

“Because of extremely low enrollment, the school lacks the necessary resources to meet the needs of students,” Holness wrote. The city’s Panel for Educational Policy, a citywide oversight board that must sign off on all school closures, voted in February to close the school.

But the school’s supporters point out that despite low test scores in the past, P.S. 25 now ranks among the city’s top elementary schools, meaning that its closure would force students into lower-performing schools elsewhere.

“Why close a school that’s doing so well?” said Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters and one of the lawsuit’s supporters. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

The lawsuit hinges on a state law that gives local education councils the authority to approve any changes to school zones. Since P.S. 25 is the only zoned elementary school for a swath of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the department’s plans would leave some families with no zoned elementary school dedicated to educating them, forcing students to attend other district schools or enter the admissions lottery for charter schools.

That amounts to “effectively attempting to change zoning lines” and “unlawfully usurping” the local education council’s authority to determine those zones, according to the lawsuit.

But even if the education department loses the lawsuit, the school’s fate would still be uncertain. The closure plan would theoretically be subject to a vote from the local education council, whose president supports shuttering the school.

Still, Haimson hopes the lawsuit ultimately persuades the education department to back away from closing the school in the long run.

“My goal would be to get the chancellor to change his mind,” Haimson said. “I don’t think the future is preordained.”