Memphis is final stop on Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s back-to-school tour

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s fifth annual back-to-school tour will bring him to Tennessee next Tuesday, Sept. 9 and Wednesday, Sept. 10.

Memphis is the final destination of the tour, which will also pass through Georgia and Alabama.

The education department has dubbed the tour “Partners in Progress.” From the release:

“The trip will include stops in Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee and highlight the commitment that those states are making to encourage reform and innovation. Traveling through places that represent the cradle of America’s civil rights effort, the tour will focus on important work being done to close gaps of opportunity that many young Americans face.”

Duncan’s last stop is at Cornerstone Prep in Memphis, a school in the state-run Achievement School District. Ending the stop at Cornerstone, which saw its test scores increase in its second year in the ASD, draws attention to the one of Duncan’s signature programs—the Race to the Top grants—which helped fund the ASD.

Some of Duncan’s favored policies have been embraced by Tennessee’s education department under current commissioner Kevin Huffman. Duncan touted the state as a model for school improvement when scores for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) were released last year. Tennessee’s gains were some of the largest in the nation.

Those policies have occasionally been controversial. For instance, the federal department has incentivized states and districts to tie teachers’ and principals’ evaluations to test scores through grant programs like Race to the Top and through waivers from the requirements of No Child Left Behind. But the Tennessee Education Association says that research demonstrates that Tennessee’s method of evaluating teachers is both unconstitutional and unfair.

The department has also incentivized the adoption of college- and career-ready standards—which has led most states, including Tennessee, to embrace the Common Core State Standards. State legislators in Tennessee considered backing away from the standards last spring, as constituents perceived them as a federal intrusion on state power, among other concerns.

Duncan’s education department recently announced significant changes to another signature program that’s had a big impact on Tennessee schools: the School Improvement Grant program, which helped fund much-touted Innovation Zone turnaround efforts in Memphis and Nashville. The changes mean, among other things, that districts can now create their own methods for school improvement rather than adhering to a set recommended by the the federal government.

Here are the Tennessee stops on Duncan’s tour:


5:40 p.m. ET

The secretary will visit the Chambliss Center for Children in Chattanooga to emphasize the importance of quality early learning in children’s education development.  He will read to a group of 3-year-olds.  Later, he will participate with about 100 parents, students and educators in an Early Learning Town Hall.

Chambliss Center for Children, 315 Gillespie Road, Chattanooga, Tennessee.


9:15 a.m. CST

The secretary will visit William Henry Oliver Middle School and participate in a town hall with about 150 parents, teachers and stakeholders.

William Henry Oliver Middle School, 6211 Nolensville Rd., Nashville, Tennessee

 2:30 p.m. CST

Secretary Duncan will conclude the tour with a celebratory rally and town hall with parents, elected officials and stakeholders at Cornerstone Preparatory School, a unique elementary whose school structure, perspective, methods and systems are based on the best practices from high-performing school across the country.

Cornerstone Preparatory School, 320 Carpenter St., Memphis, Tennessee

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.