information gap

Report incites a debate over internet speeds in city schools

No matter who you talk to — politicians, Dennis Walcott, principals or teachers — it’s clear that the Department of Education has work to do before teachers and students can handle extensive online activity in their schools. Where they disagree is how close the school system is to actually being up to speed.

The disagreement spilled into public today when department officials vehemently objected to the veracity of a report by Borough President Scott Stringer’s office. Stringer’s report, which was based on data his office received from the city last month, showed that three in four school buildings had slow internet connections.

The report criticized the city for moving too slowly to upgrade technology in schools in the age of information. Schools will also need a minimum internet bandwidth  — measured in how many megabytes of online information can be uploaded and downloaded per second — in order to administer online tests by 2015 as part of New York’s participation in a national assessment consortium (New York has signaled it may not begin the online testing on time).

But city officials said today that the department is actually much further along than what Stringer’s report claimed. They said the data they sent to Stringer’s office weren’t accurate, a point that they said was communicated last week after seeing a draft of the report.

The reality, Walcott said in a statement, is that just 250 of the city’s roughly 1,250 school buildings have slow internet speeds, a number that is consistent with what education officials told reporters at a technology summit last month. The majority of the schools, they said, have the capacity to download up to 80 megabytes of information per second.

A school with an internet bandwidth of 80 mbps would be able to administer more than 800 online tests at once, according to early bandwidth recommendations released in February by the the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.

Walcott said all schools with slow connections will be upgraded by January.

“I will not allow people to use our schools for their own self-serving purposes or as a platform for parochial politics,” Walcott said, a nod to Stringer, who is running a heated race for New York City Comptroller.

But teachers and principals said today that internet connections remains a big technological issue in their schools. Some said the internet crashes frequently, while others say it’s simply too slow to use in any practical way. One principal said her school’s slow internet limited what teachers could do in their classrooms, which are outfitted with Smart Boards with online access.

“You can’t necessarily count on the fact that when you go on the Smart Board that you’ll get what you need,” said the principal, who asked to remain anonymous because her school was scheduled to receive an upgrade this year and did not want to disrupt the process.

Responding to the city’s gripes with Stringer’s report, a borough president spokeswoman said education officials were focused on the wrong thing.

“Instead of playing a shell game with data, it is time for DOE to take responsibility, and get down to the business of ensuring that our students are fully prepared to compete in a 21st century economy,” said the spokeswoman, Megan Dougherty.

Still, Stringer’s report shows that the city has made some progress in two years. In 2011, nearly 500 schools had slow internet speeds; this year, there are 242 schools.

In 2010, the education department dedicated $783 million of its $957 million four-year capital spending plan to technology upgrades, city documents provided in Stringer’s report show.

The reason? They were “necessary in order to prepare all of our building to administer new tests online — aligned with the Common Core standards — in the 2014-15 school year.”

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.