closing season

At Irving, closure protest focuses on students who don’t attend

Supporters of Washington Irving High School protested the school's planned closure this morning.

It was still dark this morning when Steve Morris rolled up in front of Washington Irving High School on his bike.

Morris had been the school’s librarian until last summer, when the struggling school cut him from its staff roster and shuttered the library. Now he was on his way to the Brandeis High School building as a member of the Absent Teacher Reserve, the pool of position-less teachers who are shuffled to a different school each week.

But first he wanted to offer silent support to his former students and colleagues who, along with parents and union officials, had filled Irving’s front steps to protest the Department of Education’s plan to close the school.

“I’ll be the last librarian this school ever has,” Morris told me wistfully before pedaling north on Irving Place.

Irving is one of 25 schools the city has proposed closing or shrinking this year. The century-old high school near Union Square got an F on its most recent progress report, down from C’s in the previous two years.

In a series of spirited chats and statements, the protesters argued that the deck had long been stacked against the school.

They said longstanding academic weaknesses and spurts of violence had been exacerbated as the Bloomberg administration closed other schools and directed needy students to Irving. Then, in 2008, the city spun off Irving’s performing arts program, which teachers said enrolled the school’s highest-performing students, into its own school, Gramercy Arts. Overnight, Irving went from more than 2,400 students to less than 1,700. Since then, enrollment has dropped steadily, taking with it valuable dollars and staff.

Bloomberg “says he wants to open doors, but he’s closing Irving floor by floor,” UFT chapter leader Greg Lundahl led the protesters in chanting. They said the school needs time to adjust to its new reality — and more resources to serve its needy students.

The school received federal “transformation” funds this year but will see those funds directed to new schools in the building if the DOE’s closure plan is approved.

City officials cited the school’s low 4-year graduation rate — 48.2 percent last year and less than 55 percent for the last decade — when announcing their decision to seek closure. They also signaled that they were concerned the school’s leadership would not be able to pull off the turnaround.

But teachers said if the school were evaluated on the basis of students who actually attend, Irving would post a graduation rate higher than the city average.

Marian Burnbaum, a social studies teacher who heads Irving’s School Leadership Team, said there about 100 students enrolled who have never attended and cannot be tracked down. It’s because of the “long-term absences,” she said, that the school’s average daily attendance rate is a paltry 73.8 percent — well below the average high school attendance of 86 percent. That data point pushed the school out of D range.

Burnbaum said she is urging the UFT to seek legislation that would make it easier for schools to track down missing students.

Other teachers said they had taken a more local, faster-acting approach to helping students. They said they worked diligently to serve the students who do come to school, who include many English language learners and students with special needs who travel from other boroughs to attend Irving.

“There isn’t a harder-working staff in the city,” Lundahl told me.

Pearl Dixon, a physical education teacher who graduated from Irving in 1987, told me teachers had analyzed student data and practiced with a new teacher evaluation model, both activities the city has urged.

“Every policy the DOE has put to us, we have worked on,” she said. “We inherited a lot of problems, and there are things we need to work on. …. But [Bloomberg] needs to give us more time.”

Sharon Talbot, an Upper West Side resident, said her son Robert is flourishing as a sophomore in Washington Irving’s special education program after graduating from the Computer School. Talbot is white, unlike the vast majority of Irving students.

“At first I was uneasy,” she told me about her son’s assignment to the school. “But then I saw what was happening here. … What we need is more of what the school already has.”

“I pray to God that this school does not keep cutting back, that the library will reopen,” said Michael de la Cruz during the rally. His son Robert is a sophomore.

As for the library, students say it’s now closed except when teachers bring their classes. Most of the time, books sit behind locked doors and students must spend their lunch periods in the chaotic cafeteria instead of studying, according to Dayla Diaz, a senior.

This morning, Diaz was hanging out in front of the Pure Loyalty cell-phone storage truck across the street, where students drop of their cell phones for $1 a day before passing through the metal detectors at Washington Irving. She said she makes the long trip from the Bronx each day in large part because of the teachers.

“I like the teachers better than most of the students, to be honest,” she said. “You can actually sit down and talk to a teacher, and they’ll try to help you.”

During the rally, which disbanded as the first bell approached this morning, union officials vowed vigorous protests against all of the planned closures, including at schools, such as Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing Arts, that the city has proposed only slimming, not closing down.

“We will not stand aside,” said UFT Vice President Leo Casey. “We will be every place this mayor decides he’s going to close down schools.”

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.