Construyendo puentes

Communicating with Spanish-speaking parents is a challenge in Memphis. Meet the former teacher who’s taking it on.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Talia Palacio directs student volunteers at a Hispanic Heritage Month event in October. Palacio is the newly hired specialist handling communication between Shelby County Schools and Memphis' growing Hispanic community.

Growing up in Memphis, Talia Palacio started building bridges across cultures at an early age.

At the urging of her Spanish professor mother, she spoke Spanish at home and learned English at school. In school, Palacio shared Panamanian food and traditions with her classmates.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Palacio, right, coordinates activities during a Hispanic Heritage Month event for Shelby County Schools.

She went on to become a teacher in Memphis and Nashville, eventually returning to Shelby County Schools as director of the state’s only bilingual program at Treadwell Elementary, which is more than a third Hispanic.

Now Palacio is the point person for the district’s efforts to connect with Hispanic parents, many of whom speak little English. The investment has been a long time coming for a city with a growing Hispanic population and for a school system that has struggled to meet their needs. Last year, the U.S. Department of Education launched an investigation into allegations that Shelby County Schools has been turning away newly arrived students.

Palacio took her new job in July amid a national struggle over immigration, where differing visions for undocumented residents range from building a wall to providing a pathway to citizenship. She appreciates how Tennessee’s largest school district is seeking to welcome Hispanic families.

“I can see how we’ve become more conscientious when addressing matters pertaining to our multilingual families,” Palacio said. “We want all of our families, students and teachers and staff to feel supported, all while being more culturally aware.”

Natalia Powers

With her background, Palacio was natural choice to become the district’s new bilingual communications analyst, said Natalia Powers, a Latina herself who joined Shelby County Schools last year as its director of communications. Powers has been a key player in engaging more thoughtfully with Hispanic families.

“The community already knew her. It was kind of a no-brainer,” Powers said of hiring Palacio. “Anything we’re doing has a Spanish outlet or arm.”

Palacio’s main role is to support principals and school-based staff in how they communicate with Hispanic families. She spearheaded a survey during registration last summer to learn how those parents prefer to receive district communication. The result was a new Twitter account and a news website in Spanish, and she’s working on a regular show for Shelby County Schools’ radio station.

She also planned this month’s Hispanic Heritage Month celebration at Hickory Ridge Middle School. Hundreds of families turned out to meet community organizations and experience cultural dances and food. And during a recent parent session on optional schools, Palacio led an impromptu mini-session in another room for the Spanish-speaking parents.

The Memphis district has more than 13,000 students who speak primarily Spanish at home, or about 12 percent of the student population.

The key to reaching these families, especially newcomer families, is to be out in the community, rather than waiting for questions, Powers said.

“They just don’t know,” she said. “Not that they don’t want to hear about opportunities. They are learning how this country operates.”


Getting immigrant students to show up at Memphis schools was already hard. Ending DACA makes it harder.


Palacio has been working with principals at schools with a higher-than-average population of Hispanic students. Those include Jackson Elementary, Ridgeway High, Peabody Elementary, Craigmont Middle and Craigmont High.

Principals are up for the challenge, she said, but need better tools and direction. “They take ownership. They’re invested and they want parents to hear their voices,” Palacio said.

Her availability has been a godsend to principals like Cedric Smith of Hickory Ridge Middle, where almost a fifth of the student population is Hispanic. Previously, he would call random Spanish-speaking district employees for help in translating parent materials or pointing parents to community resources. Now, he has a dedicated specialist to call on, which means he spends less time chasing information that’s vital for his school’s parents.

“Everything we do is in English and Spanish,” said Smith, whose school also offers four adult classes for English as a Second Language. “Having a contact person, especially when you have a large Hispanic population to know the resources parents can receive … I think it’ll make a huge difference.”

Though the number of bilingual employees has increased in Shelby County Schools, the hiring of Palacio is different because she represents a district-wide commitment.

“When it comes to Hispanic outreach, I feel like schools are working in silos,” said Yesenia Ubaldo, a teacher and family and school support specialist for eight years.

Now, the district is “more proactive,” she said. “To be able to have access to someone who will have direct contact is wonderful.”

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Students dance with their mothers at a Hispanic Heritage Month celebration in October.

Ubaldo notes a shift in Memphis’ Hispanic population in recent decades. A lot of immigrant men used to arrive alone; now there are more families. And compared to other parts of the country with significant Hispanic populations, Memphis has more first-generation families who do not speak English, said Luis Anaya, national sales manager of Radio Ambiente, a local Spanish station.

Palacio coordinates ads on the station to reach such parents, and she plans to make more school announcements on the airwaves too, all to help families navigate the array of tasks involved in having a child in the Shelby County Schools.

“They need to be vaccinated, they need to fill out forms, they need to bring their address, all those little things,” Anaya said. “We need to inform them and we are being helpful addressing through our broadcast. Because in the past, I’ve seen Shelby County having trouble to get that information to the Hispanic community.”

Anaya recently helped promote the district’s Newcomer International Center for high school students who are newly arriving from mostly Spanish-speaking countries. The station hosted a live DJ event at Wooddale High School and invited parents to learn more about the new program.

The center has 26 students so far but needs to connect to more parents to reach its capacity of 100. It’s one of the reasons that Palacio was hired in the first place.

“The families are learning and buying in,” Palacio said. “It makes a difference to see we’re here in the community.”

cracking the code

Newark schools partner with Girls Who Code to expand access to coding clubs

PHOTO: Kei-Sygh Thomas/Chalkbeat
Students at announcement of Girls Who Code partnership with Newark Public Schools at Rafael Hernandez School

Starting in the spring, more Newark middle schoolers will be learning how to code, owing to a new partnership between Newark Public Schools and Girls Who Code. Schools Superintendent Roger León announced the initiative at Rafael Hernandez Elementary School on Thursday. The partnership will establish Girls Who Code clubs in 24 of the district’s middle schools, providing an introduction to coding skills to more than 3,000 girls.

“If we are serious about equity and opportunity, especially when it comes to communities of color, we have to teach them how to code,” said Reshma Saujani, the CEO of Girls Who Code. “I think it’s an opportunity to reach the hardest-to-reach communities.”

The initiative complements a push to increase computer science education statewide. In January, New Jersey passed a law requiring every public high school, starting this fall, to offer a computer science class. And in October, Governor Murphy committed $2 million to increasing the number of public high schools making advanced computer science classes available to students. Priority consideration will be given to schools that receive Title I funds.

Girls Who Code already offers clubs in six Newark schools, according to its website: Newark Tech High School, East Side High School, Barringer High Schools, TEAM Academy, Hawkins Street School, and First Avenue. The new partnership will increase that number and target middle schools exclusively.

By age 15, girls have often lost interest in math, science or technological subjects, according to one report. The program wants girls “to act or think like a computer scientist,” said Chrissy Ziccarelli, the director of education at Girls Who Code.

It also hopes to inspire girls to enter technology-related fields. The U.S. Bureau of Labor projects that there will be approximately 4.6 million computing jobs nationwide by the year 2020 but not enough people with the skills to fill those jobs.

“A majority of our girls want to take another computer science class after they participate in a club,” Ziccarelli said. Alumni of the program are also more likely to major in computer science, she said.

The challenge for districts, however, isn’t just exposing students to computers, says Darrin Sharif, Executive Director of Newark Kids Code, another organization that provides extra-curricular enrichment programs for Newark students, but also showing them how to use them. The Thirteenth Avenue School has two computer labs, for example. Rather, schools struggle to find teachers who are trained in how to teach computer science.  

“It’s not a digital divide, it is a digital use divide,” Sharif said.

According to a report by Code.org, universities in New Jersey only graduated three new teachers prepared to teach computer science in 2016. Because of the shortage in computer-science instructors, Girls Who Code will use volunteer facilitators, who are not required to have a technical background (and often do not). Their training consists of two, 15-minute videos to introduce the structure of the program.

The facilitators are then encouraged to learn alongside their female students by completing tutorials with them. The clubs in the new Newark Public Schools partnership will also have access to one club specialist, who has a technical background, whom facilitators can reach out to online or by phone for support.

Newark Kids Code is approaching the teacher shortage by working to tap more homegrown talent. “There is a lot of tech activity that is happening downtown, but there’s no connection to our schools at all. It may be a while before [NPS] can fill that gap,” Darrin Sharif said.  

To compensate, Newark Kids Code recruits computer science students from New Jersey Institute of Technology. These NJIT student facilitators then use curriculum from Code.org to teach six-hour workshops to elementary school students every Saturday at the Urban League’s headquarters for ten weeks. Students learn to develop websites, animations, and games with HTML and Scratch.

Stephanie Burdel has been teaching coding at Hawkins Street Elementary School for almost two years and attends “training” at Newark Kids Code on Saturdays, where she assists students, some of whom attend Hawkins and can observe the NJIT student facilitators. Burdel uses the time to learn best practices for teaching coding to her own students.

“I get extra engagement with students and see what problems they come across in the Scratch program,” Burdel said. “I learn what to do when students have problems when they’re coding and speak with the facilitators if I have questions.”

Last week, Burdel’s kindergarten and first-grade students participated in an Hour of Code, a national event designed to encourage interest in coding. She was amazed by how engaged students were. Burdel believes that learning to code in school can help students build character and improve in other subjects.

“I especially love seeing the little ones sitting and talking through the problems together,” she said. “You don’t think they have the capability especially with shorter attention spans. But they sat engaged the whole time and they loved it.”

Ana Quezada is one of Burdel’s students. She is 10 years old and sees herself becoming a programmer so she can understand computers to make them better.

“When I’m not able to figure something out on my own after ten minutes, I look around to see who can help me,” Ana said. “I ask them to explain it so I know how everything works.”

Kei-Sygh Thomas is a Newark-based journalist, who grew up and went to schools in the city.

First Person

The SHSAT helps Manhattan families like mine. I finally stood up last week to say that’s wrong.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Parents in Manhattan's District 3 gathered in June to learn about the middle school admissions process.

Choosing schools in New York City can be a formidable challenge. That was evident at a Community Education Council meeting in District 2 last week, when I spoke in favor of a proposal to phase out the exam that governs admissions to the city’s sought-after, specialized high schools — and many other parents voiced opposition to the plan.

In 2011, when my husband and I began to think about where our daughter would go to kindergarten, we realized what a complex educational landscape we would have to navigate. In the years since, we have struggled, as former teachers ourselves, to reconcile our values and self-interests. And sometimes our choices have reflected the latter.

I’ve come to see these choices through a different, critical lens, and I think our family’s story — just one in a school system with more than one million schoolchildren — may shed light on how the system isn’t yet set up to make the right choices the easy ones, and why I’ve come to believe elevating these values is so important at this moment.

The first decision we confronted was where our daughter should go to elementary school. She was zoned to attend P.S. 51 in Hell’s Kitchen. Although State Sen. Brad Hoylman would later call P.S. 51 “one of the jewels in our city’s school system,” in 2011, by traditional measures, the school faced steep challenges. Almost 70 percent of P.S. 51’s students lived in poverty, and only 61 percent of the school’s third-graders passed the state’s standardized tests. This performance still exceeded the citywide average by a significant margin but remained far below the city’s top-ranked schools. In addition, the school itself was in the middle of a construction zone.

As plans were finalized to build a new housing development and school facility where P. S. 51 stood, it was relocated to the Upper East Side, where the school stayed for two years. And so, although school buses were provided, our neighborhood school was no longer in our neighborhood.

We had another possible option. Midtown West, also known as P.S. 212, an unzoned school that accepted children via a lottery system, was a block away from our home. Years earlier, Hell’s Kitchen parents had founded the magnet school based on the progressive pedagogy championed by Bank Street College as an alternative to the neighborhood’s existing public schools, P.S. 51 and P.S. 111.

The combined efforts of school administrators, teachers, and parents led to a strong program at Midtown West. Increasing numbers of middle-class students from Hell’s Kitchen and neighborhoods around the city began to apply to the school, which attracted more resources of all types. By the time we applied to Midtown West in 2011, 87 percent of third-graders passed state tests, and 22 percent of students lived in poverty. In addition, although P.S. 51 and Midtown West were only four blocks apart, P.S. 51 had 73 percent black and Latinx students, whereas Midtown West had 38 percent. The demographics, performance, and resources of the two schools (which parents often look up) were starkly different.

In addition, we had a third possibility. Our daughter tested into the citywide Gifted and Talented program. The closest gifted program was at P.S. 11 in Chelsea, and we attended an orientation. The majority of the parents there (ourselves among them — I am white and my husband is Indian-American) were white and Asian. The gathering was a reflection of the program’s overall demographics; in 2011, more than 70 percent of kindergartners in gifted programs were white and Asian.

This stood in contrast to the broader demographics of the city’s public schools, where 70 percent of children were black and Latinx. We were deeply uncomfortable with the racial disparities between the gifted and general education classrooms but were also daunted as parents by the logistical nightmare of getting one child to school in Chelsea and another to daycare in Hell’s Kitchen — and still getting to work on time.

So here were our choices: We could send our child to a school in transition that had relocated across Manhattan. We could send her to a sought-after school that served those lucky enough to make it through a lottery system. Or, we could send her to a gifted program that served a fraction of New York City’s children. Options one and three would place our child outside of our neighborhood and in deeply segregated environments. Midtown West was closer and less segregated than most gifted classrooms, but only marginally so.

Ultimately, we were among the few to make it through Midtown West’s lottery system and we chose to enroll our daughter there. But this choice, I now see, was a Faustian bargain between our self-interest and our values.

As former teachers who had benefited from quality educations ourselves and with remunerative careers, we could have enrolled our child at P.S. 51. We could have become active parents, making positive contributions to a school in need of advocates and racial and socioeconomic diversity. But as two working parents with young children, we already felt stretched too thin. We determined that we needed a school that would successfully educate our child — with or without our involvement. P.S. 51’s relocation across town cemented our decision. So we made our own needs a priority and abandoned our zoned school.

Geography and school performance had combined to shape our choice. Midtown West was a short walk from our apartment and offered a well-rounded program. But in the process, we became inured to a system that lifted our choice about what was best for our child over the needs of the majority of the city’s schoolchildren.

By not enrolling our child in P.S. 51, we divested our zoned school of whatever resources we could have provided. Our values were in conflict with our actions. And we participated in this system again as we made our way through the screened middle school process. Our daughter received an offer from the Salk School of Science, one of the most selective and least diverse middle schools in the city. We accepted the offer, and she is at Salk today.

Now, with our daughter two years away from high school, our city is immersed in a battle over the Specialized High School Admissions Test, or SHSAT, a conflict that often pits families’ interests against one another, and the needs of the city’s children as a whole.

A small but vocal group of largely white and Asian parents has mobilized to protect the SHSAT, a mechanism that has historically preserved seats in the city’s most selective high schools for their children. Today those schools are comparable to gifted programs in their racial disparity. The majority of specialized high schools’ students are white and Asian; only 10 percent are black and Latinx.

The energy of these parent advocates for their cause could measure on the Richter scale. I know because I felt the tremors when I spoke out at the District 2 CEC meeting in favor of the city’s initiative to make the system more fair by phasing out the test and offering seats to the top 7 percent of each of the city’s middle schools. Education department projections show this measure would increase black and Latinx enrollment at the city’s specialized high schools to 45 percent — still far below the average citywide but a step closer to representative.

If the SHSAT is eliminated, the odds of these parents’ children attending specialized high schools will be significantly reduced. The same will be true for our daughter. Last year, in a school system with almost 600 middle schools, students from just 10 middle schools received 25 percent of the overall admissions offers from the city’s specialized high schools. Salk was one of those 10 schools; 70 Salk students received such offers. If the city’s plan is adopted, Salk’s number of admitted students will likely plummet.

So why did I speak out in support of phasing out the SHSAT? When our daughter was entering elementary school and middle school, we chose what was most advantageous to our family. Why change course now? Some will say the answer is because the hard choices are behind us. Many great New York City high schools exist beyond just the specialized ones. But that’s not quite it.

In 2011, as our daughter was about to enter the New York City school system, this country stood poised to elect President Obama for a second term. A common perception — one that we naively shared — was that the critical mass of American politics and culture was moving in a progressive direction. And in such a climate, my husband and I reflected less on how our choices made in self-interest might undermine the momentum toward a greater public good.

The state of our country in the last two years has increasingly reshaped our thinking and helped us begin to grapple with and develop a new understanding of how our individual actions, however great or small, contribute to the weaving or unraveling of a more just society.

Our evolution is also related to changing family dynamics. During earlier decisions about our daughter’s education, my husband and I had to answer only to each other. We had long discussions during which we weighed our options against our values and could more easily accept and forgive rationalizations and expediency. Now we are making choices in the presence of a highly engaged third party: our perceptive young daughter, who has a keen sense of social justice honed in New York City’s public schools.

How do we look her in the eye and continue to seek privilege in an educational system that is structured to favor some children, including our own, and not others? She is old enough to understand that our choices define and reveal who we really are.

The fervor of the parents at the SHSAT meeting is surely driven by their desire to secure the best opportunities for their children. That’s something we have in common with all parents across New York City.

So what would happen if we united to demand that the New York City public schools genuinely serve the public good? What if we took to heart the words issued by the city’s Board of Education in 1954, in the wake of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision: “Public education in a racially homogeneous setting is socially unrealistic and blocks the attainment of the goals of democratic education, whether this segregation occurs by law or by fact.” What would happen if we insisted that the goals of a democratic education — equal educational opportunities for all children — be realized?

Committing to those values would mean scrapping more than the SHSAT. It would mean rethinking gifted programs and middle school screening, and all the ways we separate and isolate children, which have contributed to making New York City’s school system one of the most segregated in the country.

Committing to these values would mean integrating our schools, so all children can benefit from the enhanced ability to participate a multiethnic, democratic society. It would mean offering well-funded, high quality schools to all children in all New York City neighborhoods. Yes, it would also likely mean more discomfiting conversations, like the ones at the meeting where I spoke — conversations with each other and also with ourselves. And it would mean living in harmony with what we say we believe and what we actually do.

Alexis Audette is a parent of two children in District 2. Portrait photo credit: Mark Weinberg.