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Calling for change in Douglas County

PARKER – Teachers, students and parents packed a middle school auditorium and spilled into the hallways during a school board community forum Tuesday night that was long on criticism and short on answers.

Brenda Smith, president of the Douglas County teachers' union, spoke Tuesday about staff morale, which a survey says is plummeting.

Some 20 speakers, many of them teachers, used the occasion to vent concerns about deep cuts to schools that have swollen class sizes and to accuse board members of starving public education in their quest to implement the state’s first district-run voucher program.

Students also took up the cause, with a group of high school students calling themselves SMART – Students Making A Reliable Tomorrow – telling board members “the quality of our education is declining.”

Katie Kade, a senior at Chaparral High School and one of more than a dozen students who attended as SMART, said she has 43 classmates in her Advanced Placement math class: “It really is affecting us at our schools.”

Susan Meek, a parent and former district spokeswoman who lost her bid for a school board seat in November, was warmly applauded as she questioned why the district’s fund balance continues to grow.

“At the same time, we have higher class sizes, we have increased fees for families, we have bus fees,” she said. “Why aren’t the available resources being maximized in the schools?”

But much of the focus Tuesday night at Sierra Middle School was on teachers, as union president Brenda Smith presented the results of a survey showing employee morale has fallen steeply in recent years.

“What you see is an outcry for change,” she said. “This survey solidifies we have a problem.”

Smith said the union contracted with Augenblick, Palaich and Associates – a firm previously used by the district for finance studies – after district leaders brushed off her concerns about staff morale.

More than 2,400 teachers and clerical staff responded to the survey, conducted in November and December, which used the same questions as prior district surveys to track trends.

Smith described the results as “astonishing,” with only 14 percent of respondents agreeing the district is headed in the right direction, down from 77 percent in 2007-08. Only 23 percent said they feel district leaders support their work in the classroom, down from 71 percent in 2009-10.

“It would be easy to say it’s just because of the economy,” which has led to four years without raises, she said. “But it is a direct result of the direction the district has taken in the past two years.”

That’s when a newly elected conservative majority on the board hired a new superintendent and went to work on a voucher pilot that was later stopped by a Denver judge.

Douglas County's school board community forum Tuesday in Parker drew a standing-room-only audience, many of them teachers.

Smith said Augenblick is continuing to sort through the responses to the open-ended questions contained in the survey and more details will be available within the next two weeks.

“We ask you tonight to join us to change the direction of the district and return the focus to our students,” she told board members, who have yet to formally respond to the survey results.

In fact, board members had little to say in response to questions from speakers, despite being goaded by audience members. It’s common practice in some larger school districts, such as Denver, that board members listen but do not answer questions during public comment sessions.

Board member Justin Williams did question one of Smith’s recommendations, which was “no more cuts” for Douglas County students.

“I don’t know how we could guarantee that there’s not going to be more cuts,” he said, noting cuts aren’t the board’s fault. “They’re the legislature’s fault, they’re the principals’ fault and they’re the teachers’ fault.”

It wasn’t clear what he meant but the remark drew hisses and shouts of “boo” from audience members.

Pam Mazanec, a voucher advocate who spoke after Smith, also found little favor with the crowd.

“I’ve heard about the survey that the union was able to get. I say that survey and results mean nothing … if we do not know the why behind this crash in morale,” she said, her voice nearly drowned out by the audience.

“I would also add that some of the behavior here tonight, I hope they don’t allow this from their students,” she said, adding, “This is a good reason why many parents want school choice.”

As Mazanec walked back to her seat, a male voice in the crowd shouted, “This is what democracy looks like,” and applause broke out.

District spokesman Randy Barber said district officials are not ignoring the survey results, though they’re uncertain how employees were selection for inclusion. The district plans to resume its own climate survey this spring, after suspending it during last year’s strategic planning, and will ask similar questions of a broader audience that will include staff and community.

“Is it feedback, is it something we’re going to pay attention to?” he said of the union’s results. “Certainly.”

Brenda Smith, union president, addresses the school board on staff morale

Crowd response to Smith and board member Justin Williams’ subsequent remarks

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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.