Latino voices

Here’s what five Latino students have to say about their school experience in Memphis

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Students at a Latino Memphis conference vie for T-shirts and lanyards from local university representatives.

Born in Mexico, Chantel Barcenas recalls what it felt like to grow up in Memphis as the only Latina student in her elementary and middle schools — and how education offered her “the chance to find myself.”

Chantel Barcenas
Chantel Barcenas

“That was really hard, but now I feel like I know my identity more,” the high school senior said Monday while attending a youth rally for Hispanic students in Shelby County. “The more you learn about the world in school, the more it helps you do that.”

Barcenas was one of three Memphis students to perform spoken word poetry before 800 of her peers, many of whom are fellow immigrants or children of immigrants, at this week’s event.

“We have gone through struggles that so many don’t know about to get to a place where we have education and opportunities,” said Barcenas, who attends Cordova High School. “To be able to come together and share our personal stories through poetry for so many, that’s powerful.”

Latino Memphis, a nonprofit organization aiding the Mid-South’s Hispanic population, partnered with Shelby County Schools to bring students from nine high schools to its annual Congreso conference. This is the second year Congreso has included a rally for high school juniors and seniors to hear motivational speakers and talk with representatives from local universities.

Chalkbeat spoke with several Latino teens about their opportunities and challenges as students. Here are some of their responses, condensed for brevity.

What does successful education look like to you?

“It’s the opportunity to be someone in life,” said Janeth Brigido, a senior at Wooddale High School. “It’s like a gift … but a really hard gift. If you work really hard and have the right people to help you, it can be the chance to offer something to your parents they never had.”

What’s been one of the biggest challenges of attending public schools in Memphis?

Oscar Mancilla
Oscar Mancilla

“Learning the language, not being able to talk or connect with others,” said Oscar Mancilla, a 12th-grader at Sheffield High School. “Even though I was born in the states, I was raised to speak Spanish. There are still words I don’t understand. That’s frustrating when you don’t feel like people understand how difficult it is to learn a new language when you’re older. It’s not a quick thing.”

“Racism,” said Tina Velasquez, a junior at Kirby High School. “It took a year and a half for me to really learn the language. “I felt like I had to prove myself more than the other kids around me … like that I could be a part of the honors society and that I deserved the same opportunities as everyone else.”

“You’re really just thrown into the system,” Barcenas said. “There’s not a lot of guidance, especially with the language. I also wish we were introduced to our peers in a better way. Instead of just, ‘This is the new kid who can’t really speak your language,’ helping us tell our classes where we’re from and why we’re here. Some people have no idea what we went through to get here.”

Shelby County Schools is under a federal civil rights investigation for discrimination of migrant children. Have you or anyone you know been blocked from going to Memphis high schools?

“A friend of mine had to really ask the school administration to stay at Wooddale. He was older and didn’t speak much English, but he really wanted to go to high school and learn. He was able attend, but not everyone is,” said Brigido, who is originally from Mexico and has lived in Memphis for 12 years.

From left: Cynthia Ayala and Janeth Brigido attend a Congreso rally from Wooddale High School.
From left: Cynthia Ayala and Janeth Brigido attend a Congreso rally from Wooddale High School.

Cinthia Ayala, a junior at Wooddale High School, said she has not seen or experienced students being kept from enrolling in school.

“It’s something that’s talked about,” she said. “For those who truly want to go to school, to make a better life, it’s terrible to not get that opportunity. How are they supposed to rise above if they aren’t given a chance to study?”

What are you hoping your next steps will be after high school?  

“I plan to attend the University of Memphis or Southwest Community College and eventually become a pediatric nurse,” said Velasquez. “I mean, who doesn’t love babies?”

“Christian Brothers University is my dream college,” Barcenas said. “I think I want to study psychology or social work. Those seem like direct paths to making a difference.”

moving on up

Jeffco on track to move most of next year’s sixth-graders into middle school buildings

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Jeffco Public Schools is moving forward with plans to put the majority of its sixth-graders in middle schools instead of elementary schools starting next fall, a shift district officials say will both better utilize building space and ease what can be a rough transition for kids.

The change, announced more than a year ago, will bring the state’s second largest school district into alignment with how most Colorado districts split up elementary and middle school.

Jeffco will continue to operate models that break that mold, including longstanding K-8 schools and a newer experiment with 7th through 12th grade schools officials say has shown promise.

Some critics continue to voice concerns about the plan, including questioning the cost and comparing that to what they say will result in a questionable benefit for students’ educations. District officials, however, say parents are getting their questions answered and educators are hearing fewer concerns than before.

The issue has come up at forums for school board candidates running this fall, and Jeffco staff last week at a regular board meeting updated the school board.

Marcia Anker, who started in July as the district’s sixth grade transition coordinator, said that some Jeffco schools individually started asking to make the change more than 10 years ago. Some individual middle schools had already been allowed to start enrolling sixth graders.

District officials say they estimate 3,355 students due to be sixth graders next year will be attending a middle school in 2018-19 instead of staying in an elementary school.

Many of the players involved in the initial discussions to move sixth grade out of elementary schools aren’t in the district anymore, including former superintendent Dan McMinimee.

Current district leaders say it was a conversation that began with district officials who oversee use of buildings, but that the decision wasn’t driven by building concerns.

Still, building use is a factor. Tim Reed, executive director of Jeffco facilities said middle school buildings in Jeffco were designed to hold three grade levels and have been underutilized.

“I think the conversation has always been about what’s best for students,” Reed said. “There was a recognition that there was significant underutilization in our middle school buildings. This was a way to accomplish two things including to better utilize middle schools.”

National research on middle school grade configurations has not been keen on sixth through eighth grade models. One study comparing students in sixth through eighth grade schools to students in schools that are K-8 schools found that student test scores weren’t different, but found more negative perceptions among students in traditional middle schools.

Jeffco board members and staff who have touted the benefits that sixth graders will see in a middle school point out that students will get a chance to start exploring their career interests with elective classes and have more time to develop relationships with staff in the middle schools.

Karen Quanbeck, interim chief school effectiveness officer and a previous middle school principal in the district, said at last week’s board meeting that two years with students is not enough.

“It seems like you’re welcoming them and in the blink of an eye you’re sending them off to high school,” Quanbeck said.

But some schools will need to continue with the seventh and eighth grade model for at least one more year. Because the empty middle school seats aren’t evenly spread throughout the district, some schools will require expansions to make room for new sixth graders.

The school board has already approved the funding to build a $10 million addition to Drake Middle School and a $4.5 million addition to Dunstan Middle School to accommodate the changes. Another $2 million in reserves will be used to make minor fixes at five other schools.

Three schools — Ken Caryl, Creighton and Summit Ridge — will delay their transition to the new model because the district estimates it needs to find another $15.5 million to add eight classrooms to each school.

Two years ago, in a bid to help lift student achievement, the district merged some schools to create two seventh-through-12 schools: Alameda and Jefferson junior and senior high schools. Those schools will retain that model.

Principals at those schools say they are seeing small benefits from the change. Though the neighborhoods are traditionally higher in poverty and mobility, Anker said that principals tell her students are staying in the school at a higher rate than before.

Still, Anker said one model is not better than another.

“Matriculation models that offer the fewest transitions are what benefits kids,” Anker said.

While there may be some benefits to having every Jeffco middle school offer the same grades — for instance, so parents choosing different schools across the district have consistency — the cost of doing that would also be prohibitive, Anker said.

“We also value the differences in our communities,” Anker said.

The district in the coming months will need to find a way to fund the remaining middle school expansions. Officials also will help some sought-after schools decide if they will cut down the number of seventh and eighth graders they enroll, or ask for help to build out space as well.

vegetarian options

Want your Brooklyn school to go meatless on Mondays? Here’s your chance.

PHOTO: Helen Richardson, The Denver Post

Goodbye, ground beef and popcorn chicken. Hello, crispy tofu and roasted chickpea tagine.

Starting next spring, 15 Brooklyn schools will begin “meatless Mondays” — an effort to make school lunches and breakfasts a little healthier and friendlier to the environment, officials said Monday.

The city has not yet picked the schools that will participate in the pilot program, and an education spokeswoman said the city will make decisions based on interest and public input. (Whether the city is prepared for a barrage of requests from health-minded Park Slope parents is another matter.)

The announcement comes less than two months after city officials made lunch free for all students regardless of income. Monday’s press conference was held at Brooklyn’s P.S. 1 — one of three district schools that only serves vegetarian fare — and drew Mayor Bill de Blasio, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.

“Cutting back a little on meat will help make our city healthier and our planet stronger for generations to come,” de Blasio said in a statement, adding that meat will no longer be served at Gracie Mansion on Mondays.

You can read more about the program here.