quest diagnostics

NYC summer program cuts testing to weigh learning benefits

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Jennifer Rosario (right), a social worker with Partnership with Children, teaches students from the South Bronx Academy for Applied Media to make smoothies.

An ambitious pilot to stem summer learning loss for low-income New York City students wrapped up its second year this month. But officials will have to wait a little longer before they can tell for sure how much it’s working.

When the pilot, called NYC Summer Quest, began last summer, city education officials wanted to test students to measure how much the gap narrowed by after finishing the five-week program. They asked schools to give the students an extra set of tests at the end and beginning of the school year.

But it didn’t work out as planned. Principals in participating schools quickly pointed out that June and September were too hectic to make their highest-need children sit for more tests.

“It was really hard on the schools,” said Ali Tan, Summer Quest’s program director at the Department of Education.

This year, Tan said the job of measuring academic progress is being handled by the department’s central staff and will be based on state tests that students already take April.

But the program’s success will also rely heavily on other metrics, such as attendance rates, parent engagement, and survey responses from students and parents who participated in the program.

Tan said the change in philosophy is among the hard lessons from the first year of implementation of Summer Quest, which launched a three-year pilot in 2012 with 1,100 students and $2.5 million in private donations. It expanded this year with an extra $2 million in public dollars.

The goal, officials said, is to transform summer school for students from high-need communities.

Summer school in New York City has traditionally been reserved for students who failed the state exams and face repeating their previous grade over again. But Summer Quest partnered with community based organizations like Children’s Aid Society and Good Shepherd Services to offer more than just a few hours of lessons in preparation for an end-of-summer test.

“It’s a totally different 21st-century model for what summer represents for our students and making sure that there’s both fun but that there’s also learning taking place,” said Chancellor Dennis Walcott, who visited many of the 11 schools where Summer Quest programs were held this summer.

The eight-hour daily schedule is also packed with enrichment activities. At South Bronx Academy for Applied Media, that meant baking classes and dance lessons before lunch, and field trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the afternoon.

People who have worked on the pilot say the reduced emphasis on test scores is also a reminder of how challenging it is to evaluate extended learning time initiatives. They say they expect the benefits to accumulate over time, rather than suddenly appear after one five-week period.

“What our scholars are learning now is more internal,” said Andrea Lawrence, assistant principal at South Bronx Academy, which enrolled about 135 middle school students in Summer Quest this year.

That’s one reason officials aren’t alarmed that there isn’t yet academic data to show whether the program is working. They say having a place to go during the summer gives students a way to keep pace with their peers from more affluent families, who often pay to enroll in many different summer programs and camps in the summer.

Eighth grader Lyanna Marrer didn’t cite improved test scores as the reason she volunteered to return to Summer Quest for a second straight year. She said her alternative was “playing on my bed and watching TV.”

With the absence of hard academic data after one year of Summer Quest, officials pointed to other measures as proof of success during the first year. Families leave satisfied, surveys show, and parents often become more engaged in school activities in the next school year, officials said. Middle school students in particular reported feeling more connected to their schools and more confident handling more difficult work.

Summer Quest was originally designed to serve students who scored high enough on state tests to be promoted, but who officials said could still benefit from enrichment and academic activities over the summer. But this year the program also included some students required to attend summer school, and officials said they wanted to know how these students performed compared to similar students enrolled in traditional summer school.  In addition to state tests, Summer Quest participants will also take the city’s summer school exam, administered the first week of August, and then compared to similar students enrolled in traditional summer school programs.

Even though the results won’t be in for some time, people who worked on the program this year say the benefits are already detectable. Jennifer Rosario, one of 27 part-time social workers from Partnership with Children assigned to South Bronx Academy this summer, said that the smoothie-making class she taught is filled with moments where students learn new things. She recalled explaining the key nutrients of their newest ingredient, bananas, and giving students a primer on where fruits fit on the food triangle.

Sitting nearby with a small glass of a strawberry smoothie, Lydia Colon, an an eighth grader, said she literally couldn’t think of anything better to do in the summer than come to school for Summer Quest each day.

“In the beginning of the summer, I have nothing to do,” she said. “Otherwise, I’d be on the street.”

This story is part of a multi-city series on expanded learning time, with funding from the Ford Foundation, which supports “more and better learning time” in high-need communities. Also participating in the series are the Notebook (Philadelphia), Catalyst ChicagoEdSource (California), and GothamSchools’ sister site EdNewsColorado.

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.