Parents in school

English class for parents at one Memphis school fuels sense of community

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Kate Bond Elementary School's bilingual mentor Lissette Bailey, left, talks with parents after a recent English class.

When Maria Torres first sent her child to Kate Bond Elementary School, the thought of reinforcing classroom lessons at home or volunteering at the school was overwhelming because she did not speak English.

“We never knew what was going on,” she said.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Lissette Bailey, center, is the bilingual mentor for Kate Bond Elementary School in Memphis.

The school’s longtime bilingual mentor, Lissette Bailey, knew Torres’s story was common. Even though Bailey could help with translating materials Torres could use, she wanted to empower other parents like her to stay involved in their children’s education. So she started the class to teach parents English nearly a decade ago.

That decision has led to cascading effects for the school, where half of students are Hispanic and the immigrant population is growing. Parents say they can help their children with homework now and have gotten involved with the school’s parent-teacher organization.

“The ones that participate the most, their kids are doing well,” Bailey said. “They’re understanding more now because their parents are understanding more.”

Kate Bond Elementary offers a model for Shelby County Schools, where a growing immigrant population is compounding longtime challenges with parent involvement. The district has ramped up efforts to reach Hispanic families, many of whom are first-generation immigrants, including by opening a program to acclimate newly arrived high school students.

Source: Tennessee Department of Education

But Bailey, who is in her 18th year at Kate Bond Elementary, said more bilingual mentors are needed for schools, especially those with high English learner populations. Though many immigrant students speak Spanish, the district also has students whose first language is neither Spanish nor English.

Kate Bond Principal Yvette Williams-Renfroe said the class makes a difference at her school and could be a solution for other schools.

“It makes them feel like they’re a part of the community,” she said.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Volunteer teacher Alicia Hall leads an English class for parents at Kate Bond Elementary School.

A typical morning class is split into two sections: a beginner section led by a volunteer and a more advanced group led by Reyna Collier, who two years ago was in the same situation as those she teaches.

The class also has become a social gathering for mothers. They bring their children who are too young for school and recently threw a baby shower for one regular.

“I never knew anybody before … and I have friends now,” Collier said.

As their English skills grow, many of the parents have approached PTO president Mary Smith about how to get involved.

“That’s how I got into the PTO was through the class. We’ve learned things we never knew about programs at the school,” said Bertha Garcia.

“If we’re connected, I believe we can almost do anything,” Smith said.

There are several other parent ESL classes in Memphis, but Bailey’s is one of the longest-running. As part of her role, Bailey also mediates complaints, misunderstandings, and meetings between teachers and parents learning English. The ESL class has been the most useful tool in increasing parent engagement, she said.

“You have to put yourself in their shoes sometimes,” said Bailey. “I do it because I see a need.”

talking SHSAT

Love or hate the specialized high school test, New York City students take the exam this weekend

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
At a town hall this summer in Brooklyn's District 15, parents protested city plans to overhaul admissions to elite specialized high schools.

The Specialized High Schools Admissions Test has been both lauded as a fair measure for who gets accepted to the city’s most coveted high schools — and derided as the cause for starkly segregating them.

This weekend, the tense debate is likely to be far from the minds of thousands of students as they sit for the three-hour exam, which currently stands as the sole admissions criteria for vaunted schools such as Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech.

All the debate and all the policy stuff that’s been happening —  it’s just words and there really isn’t anything concrete that’s been put into place yet. So until it happens, they just continue on,” said Mahalia Watson, founder of the website Let’s Talk Schools, an online guide for parents navigating their school options.

Mayor Bill de Blasio this summer ignited a firestorm with a proposal to nix the SHSAT and instead offer admission to top middle school students across the city. Critics say the test is what segregates students, offering an advantage to families who can afford tutoring or simply are more aware of the importance of the exam. Only 10 percent of specialized high school students are black or Hispanic, compared to almost 70 percent of all students citywide.

For some, the uproar, coupled with a high profile lawsuit claiming Harvard University discriminates against Asian applicants, has only added to the pressure to get a seat at a specialized school. Asian students make up about 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, and families from that community have lobbied hard to preserve the way students are admitted.

One Asian mother told Chalkbeat in an email that, while she believes in the need for programs that promote diversity, the SHSAT is “a color blind and unbiased” admissions measure. Her daughter has been studying with the help of test prep books, and now she wonders whether it will be enough.  

“In my opinion, options for a good competitive high school are very limited,” the mom wrote. “With all the recent news of the mayor trying to change the admission process to the specialized high schools and the Harvard lawsuit makes that more important for her to get acceptance.”

Last year, 28,000 students took the SHSAT, and only 5,000 were offered admission. Among this year’s crop of hopeful students is Robert Mercier’s son, an eighth grader with his sights set on High School of American Studies at Lehman College.

Mercier has encouraged his son to study for the test — even while hoping that the admissions system will eventually change. His son plays catcher on a baseball team and is an avid debater at school, activities that Mercier said are important for a well-rounded student and should be factored into admissions decisions.

“If you don’t do well on that one test but you’ve been a great student your whole career,” Mercier said, “I just don’t think that’s fair and I don’t think that’s necessarily a complete assessment of a student’s abilities or worth.”

Teacher's tale

Video: This Detroit teacher explains how she uses her classroom to ‘start a real loud revolution’

Silver Danielle Moore, a teacher at the Detroit Leadership Academy, tells her story at the Tale the Teacher storytelling event on October 6, 2018.

Silver Danielle Moore doesn’t just see teaching as way to pass along information to students. She views teaching as a way to bring about change.

“The work of us as educators is to start a real loud revolution,” Moore told the audience this month at a teacher storytelling event co-sponsored by Chalkbeat. “The revolution will not happen without resistance, and social justice classrooms are the instruments of that resistance.”

Moore, a teacher at the Detroit Leadership Academy charter school, was one of four Detroit educators who told their stories on stage at the Tale the Teacher event held at the Lyft Lounge at MusicTown Detroit on October 6.

The event, organized by Western International High School counselor Joy Mohammed, raised about $120 that Mohammed said she used to buy a laptop for a student who needed it to participate on the school’s yearbook staff.

Over the next few weeks, Chalkbeat will be posting videos of the stories told at the event.

Moore, a self-proclaimed “black hip-hop Jesus feminist” opened her story with a memory of leaving a teacher training session four years ago to travel to Ferguson, Missouri, to be part of Labor Day weekend protests after Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African-American man, was fatally shot by a police officer.

“There was so much grief but also so much fight in that place,” she recalled. “I will never forget the moment I stood at the place that Mike Brown was killed. I will never forget the look in his mother’s face.”

She recalled bringing that experience back to Detroit and to her classroom.

“Imagine, after that weekend, returning back to the classroom on September 2nd,” she said. “I fought that weekend for Mike Brown … but I also did it for the 66 kids I would have that school year and every child I have had since then.”

Watch Moore’s full story here:

Video by Colin Maloney

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