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.”

awards season

For the first time in two decades, New York’s Teacher of the Year hails from New York City — and West Africa

PHOTO: New York State Education Department
Bronx International High School teacher Alhassan Susso, center, is New York State's 2019 Teacher of the Year.

An immigrant from West Africa who teaches social studies to immigrant students in the Bronx is New York State’s newest Teacher of the Year.

Alhassan Susso, who works at International Community High School in Mott Haven, received the award Tuesday, becoming the first New York City teacher to do so since 1998.

As the state’s Teacher of the Year, Susso will travel the state to work with local educators — and will represent New York in the national competition at a time when federal authorities are aggressively seeking to limit immigration.

A decorated teacher with significant vision impairment since childhood, Susso came to New York from Gambia at 16 and had a rocky experience at his upstate high school, which he chronicled in an autobiography he published in 2016. Assuming that he would struggle academically because he was an immigrant, even though English is the official language of Gambia, his teachers assigned him to a remedial reading class. There, he found a compassionate teacher who was attentive to the diverse needs of her students, who came from all over the world.

Now, Susso is playing that role at his school. International Community High School, part of the Internationals Network for new immigrants, has a special program for students who did not receive a formal education before coming to the United States.

“Alhassan Susso exemplifies the dedication and passion of our 79,000 New York City teachers,” city Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said in a statement. “Using the obstacles he’s overcome and lessons he’s learned in his own life, Alhassan has changed the trajectory of students’ lives and helped them pursue their dreams.”

New York City teachers make up nearly 40 percent of the state’s teaching force but have won the Teacher of the Year honor only six times since 1965, the last in 1998. This year’s winner had a strong chance of ending the two-decade shutout: Two of the three finalists teach in the Bronx. In addition to Susso, Frederick Douglass Academy III chemistry teacher William Green was up for the award.

regents roundup

Regents support a new way of evaluating charter schools and soften penalties for schools with high opt-out rates

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York’s top education policymakers tentatively approved new rules Monday on two hot-button issues: the penalties for districts and schools where many students opt out of state tests — and how nearly 100 charter schools across the state will be evaluated.

Here’s what you need to know about the new policies that the state’s Board of Regents set in motion.

Potential penalties for high opt-out rates were softened

After criticism from activists and parents within the opt-out movement and pushback from the state teachers union, the Regents walked back some of the consequences schools and districts can face when students refuse to take state exams.

Among the most significant changes, which state officials first floated last week, is that districts with high opt-out rates will not be required to use a portion of their federal funding to increase their testing rates.

“I do not ever want to be the person who takes money away from children,” State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said.

The regulations are part of the state’s plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act and stem from a federal mandate that 95 percent of students take the state’s annual reading and math exams.

The Regents tweaked other rules requiring schools to create improvement plans if they fall below the 95 percent threshold. Schools with average or higher test scores will not have to come up with those plans.

Still, some parents who support the opt-out movement and who attended Monday’s meeting said the changes don’t go far enough and that schools with lower test scores should also be exempt from coming up with plans to boost participation rates.

“There’s still so much left to be addressed,” said Kemala Karmen, a New York City public school parent who attended the meeting.

The new regulations will likely not have a major effect in New York City, where opt-out rates have remained relatively low. Although New York State has been the epicenter of the test-boycott movement — with roughly one in five students refusing to take the tests, according to the most recent data — less than 4 percent of the city’s students declined to take them.

The Regents unanimously approved the changes, although their vote is technically preliminary. The tweaks will still be subject to a 30-day public comment period and will likely be brought to a final vote in December.

New criteria for evaluating charter schools

The Regents also narrowly approved a new framework for evaluating the roughly 100 charter schools that the board oversees across the state, 63 of which are in New York City.

The new framework is meant to bring charter schools in line with how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the Regents have moved away from emphasizing test scores as the key indicator of a school’s success.

In keeping with that shift, the new charter framework will require schools to have policies covering chronic absenteeism, out-of-school suspension rates, and other measures of school culture to help decide whether they are successful enough to remain open.

And while the new framework does not spell out specific rates of chronic absenteeism a school must fall below, for example, it does explicitly add those policies to the mix of factors the Regents consider. (Officials said that test scores and graduation rates would still remain among the most important factors in evaluating charter schools.)

At Monday’s meeting, discussion of the charter framework prompted broad complaints about the charter sector from some Regents. The state’s framework for evaluating charters was last updated in 2015; the board has added several new members and a new chancellor since then.

The current board has repeatedly sent mixed messages about the sector, approving large batches of new charters while also rejecting others and raising questions about whether the schools serve a fair share of high-need students.

“We’re giving money away from our public schools to charters,” Regent Kathy Cashin said, emphasizing that she believes the state should more deeply probe when students leave charter schools and survey families to find out why.

Charters receive some freedom from rules governing most district-run schools, but in exchange the schools are expected to meet certain performance benchmarks or else face closure.

State officials said the new framework does not include new standards for how New York judges enrollment and retention. Under the current rules, schools must enroll a similar number of students with disabilities, English learners, and low-income students as other nearby district schools. If they don’t, they must show that they’re making progress toward that goal.

Ultimately, the new framework was approved eight to five in a preliminary vote and will be brought back to the full board for approval on Tuesday.