Denver Education Compact kicks off kindergarten transitions project

Students gathered at Pascual LaDoux Academy in Southwest Denver to hear Mayor Michael Hancock read "'Twas the Night Before Kindergarten."
Students gathered at Pascual LaDoux Academy in Southwest Denver to hear Mayor Michael Hancock read “‘Twas the Night Before Kindergarten.”

Denver’s partnership between the city school district, business and community leaders aimed at improving educational outcomes is launching its first major initiative, an attempt to improve kindergarten readiness and smooth the transition into elementary school for young children in Southwest Denver.

The Denver Education Compact was launched by Denver Mayor Michael Hancock launched in 2011 as a way to bring together civic and educational leaders to identify new ways to promote improved outcomes for Denver’s children.

Early education emerged as a key component of the compact’s work quickly as the project was developed, and in April the group formally identified several key goals, including increasing the number of children enrolled in early childhood programs and increasing the number of third-graders reading at grade level.

The kindergarten transitions project, dubbed “Countdown to Kindergarten,” is the compact’s first attempt to tackle those goals. Its aim is to educate parents on key school readiness strategies and to bring together staff at nine Southwest Denver elementary schools and four public and private early learning programs to coordinate and develop plans to support students.

“The reality is that every child enters kindergarten at a different place,” said Hancock at the project’s kick-off event Tuesday. But regardless of whether a child has been in a formal pre-school program, a day care or at home with a caregiver, Hancock said, the transition into kindergarten presents challenges for the student.

“They have a new school, and in some cases it’s the first school they’ve ever been to,” said Terry Bower, the director of the compact. “They have a new teacher. They have new rules. They eat in the cafeteria.”

Bower said that the program’s goal is to make sure students arrive to kindergarten ready to meet those academic, social and emotional challenges and help ease their experience into elementary school.

The initiative will hold a series of workshops for parents organized around ideas like navigating the school choice system and preventing summer learning loss. It will also bring together school leaders and staff from the schools and childcare centers together to learn from experts on school transitions and prepare concrete plans to take back to their classrooms.

Early childhood education and kindergarten readiness was in some ways a natural place for the compact to begin its work, Bower said, because pre-school and kindergarten are the first time students enter the educational system and because there were relatively few public and private agencies and organizations to coordinate.

“The ideas is we’re tackling the whole feeder system,” Bower said. The compact eventually plans to introduce more initiatives that widen its focus out to the entire span from birth to when a student enters the workforce.

The nine elementary schools that are participating in the kindergarten transitions program all feed into Southwest Denver’s Kepner Middle School. And the four early learning centers, which include Pascual LaDoux Academy, an early childhood education center run by Denver Public Schools, and community groups including Mile High Montessori, were selected because of the number of students who enter the participating elementary schools from their programs.

All in all, Bower said, the program is targeting about 750 4-year-olds in its initial year.

Although the program eventually hopes to scale out to other parts of the city, Bower said its initial focus on Southwest Denver comes because of both the community work that is already happening in the neighborhood and because of the large achievement gaps that exist between the neighborhood’s students and their more affluent peers.

“The compact has made a very strategic decision to use the resources where they’re most needed,” said Bower.

Coverage of early literacy is supported in part by a grant from Mile High United Way. EdNews Colorado retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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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.