Candidate for ed chief

Regents narrow their choices for New York’s next education chief

Updated — The search for New York’s next education commissioner could wrap up this week, as final candidates have emerged and the Board of Regents has scheduled a last-minute meeting for Tuesday afternoon.

In contention are a mix of superintendents from inside and outside New York state, according to multiple sources. Two of the final candidates, though not the only two, are Christopher Koch, Illinois’s longtime superintendent who stepped down in April, and Dan White, a superintendent for a Western New York region that serves suburban districts.

It’s unclear how many candidates are among the finalists for the state commissioner post, a job that has been unfilled since John King left for the federal education department at the end of 2014. At least one person from outside New York with experience as a district superintendent is also said to still be in the running.

The chosen candidate will oversee the State Education Department at a moment of transition for education policy in New York. He or she will face a department without the extra millions of federal money it had been spending since 2010, a growing movement of parents opposed to state testing, wariness from school districts facing fresh changes to teacher evaluations, and a changing Board of Regents, which oversees the department.

“We need someone who can manage organized change in an effective way,” Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said of the commissioner search last week.

The two known finalists, Koch (pronounced “cook”) and White, are leaders with different kinds of leadership experience. But people who worked closely with the men described them as knowledgeable and practical.

Koch wrapped up a nearly nine-year reign as Illinois’ education chief in April, one of the longest tenures of state education leaders during that period. As the state’s education steward through its Race to the Top era, he worked to introduce new teacher evaluations, boost learning standards, and lower passing scores on state standardized tests — policies that have been rolled out more slowly and thus with much less acrimony than New York’s similar shifts.

“New York would be lucky to get him,” said Robin Steans, executive director of Advance Illinois, a group that advocates for many of those policy changes.

Koch didn’t steer entirely clear of controversy during his tenure. He was among several state chiefs who accepted trips paid for by the charitable foundation of the publishing giant Pearson, which had $138 million in contracts with Illinois, according to the New York Times. New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman investigated similar trips made by New York officials, but found no evidence of wrongdoing.

Koch is now serving as the interim president of the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation.

White helms the Monroe County’s Board of Cooperative Educational Services, which provides special academic and support services to students across districts in Monroe County, a position he has held since 2008. As chair of the Monroe superintendents, who oversee the districts surrounding Rochester, White has had exposure to state-level policymaking and met monthly with Tisch and King in Albany.

White was previously a school counselor, a principal, and superintendent of Perry Central School District, an 800-student district south of Rochester.

The candidate the Regents choose will act as the chief executive officer of the State Education Department, an agency of more than 2,600 employees with a $30 million budget. The department shapes education policy for nearly 700 school districts, including New York City. It also oversees the state’s public colleges, libraries, museums, and broadcasting stations, and provides licenses for 52 professions.

Like most high-profile executive searches, details of the process are kept secret until a candidate is picked. State education officials declined to comment on possible candidates.

“The committee is in the final stages of its work,” said Regents Vice Chancellor Anthony Bottar, who is heading the search committee.

The Regents formally launched the hiring process in early February, a little over a month after King resigned after three-and-a-half years on the job. King’s tenure was marked by controversy around the how quickly the state moved to make significant changes to its teacher evaluations and its standardized tests.

Since his resignation, the state’s education policy debates have only become more heated. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has focused his attention on education issues, passing a controversial new evaluation law that included an overhaul of teacher evaluations and dozens of other policy changes. Last October, he vowed to dismantle what he called the state’s public-education “monopoly,” infuriating teachers unions and local districts.

Meanwhile, nearly one-third of the 17 members of the Board of Regents were elected in the last 14 months. The new members are vocal critics of the policies implemented after New York State won $700 million in federal Race to the Top grants in 2010, which compelled states to overhaul their teacher evaluations and teacher preparation programs and raise learning standards.

Now, the federal grant money has been spent, and pushback from districts and teachers unions has swelled.

“This is probably one of the toughest times ever to become a state chief,” said Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, the nonprofit education consulting group. “New York is particularly difficult because you have a governor who’s out front on many of these issues and a Board of Regents that’s challenging.”

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.