the day after

What we saw and heard in Tennessee schools on the day after Election Day

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Fourth- and fifth-graders at Brewster Elementary School in Memphis pause to share their thoughts about the election of Donald Trump as America's next president.

Teacher Nikki Wilks saw her high school students experience a gamut of emotions in her Memphis classroom on Wednesday as their behaviors reflected the polarizing divide in the nation itself.

One student who is a teen mom worried about raising her 3-year-old daughter in a nation led by President-elect Donald Trump. Fearing a climate of escalating anger over race and gender, she told Wilks that she just needed a hug.

Another student came into her classroom wearing a “Make America Great Again” cap, seemingly unphased by the anguish felt by many students in a school with a significant Latino population, a frequent target of Trump’s campaign speeches.

Wilks, a Hillary Clinton supporter, admitted to being “shellshocked” — in and out of tears all morning as she tried to teach her 12th-grade English classes at Kingsbury High School. Many of her students are 18 and had voted Tuesday in their very first election.

“The classes are much more somber than normal,” Wilks said. “It feels somewhat like everyone is walking around on eggshells (and) scared that if we actually vocalize it, we are making it more real, more permanent.”

Across the state, educators tried to offer a safe space for students to process the stunning Election Day results, in which Clinton won the national popular vote by a nose and Trump took the electoral vote — and the White House.

In schools in Nashville, which along with Memphis were in the only Tennessee counties easily won by Clinton, leaders waived off requests by reporters to visit classrooms. The goal was to minimize distractions and let teachers focus on their students, a spokesman said. Meanwhile, at one middle school, leaders of an after-school program let their immigrant students talk through the election and what it means. Many already had experienced the sting of campaign rhetoric, as well as bullying from other students for speaking Spanish.

On social media, educators acknowledged the challenges they faced and turned to their teaching mentors.

shanique

Others saw the election results as a call to action as they prepared to go back to work.

“Tomorrow I will go to work and I will teach my students,” said Rachel Altsman, an English teacher and librarian at the Collegiate School of Memphis, in an entry on Facebook. “We will read a book set in Afghanistan with Muslim characters and practice empathy. We will read poetry and learn to appreciate beauty. I will do everything I can to shield them from the hatred the world throws at them and to put a megaphone up to their mouths to amplify their voices. I will continue to fill our library with books that reflect and celebrate the diversity of our world. I will tell my students that they are beautiful and valuable and integral to the success of this country. I will tell them that God loves them exactly as they are and that there is room for them in the Kingdom.”

At Nashville’s Glencliff High School, Spanish teacher Caroline Miller opted to open up her classes with five minutes of discussion about the election. “I wanted to be a sounding board,” Miller said. “A lot (of students) were extremely upset. One girl in particular said she was on Facebook and there are a lot of memes of black people being deported back to Africa. … That’s a thing they’re talking about.”

The election was on the minds of students of all grade levels.

At Brewster Elementary School in Memphis, children who had been expecting a Clinton victory —and got one in a mock election last week — hoped but didn’t expect Trump will soften his rhetoric.

“Kids are listening and they’re getting hurt by him,” explained fourth-grader Jennifer Guerrero, mentioning the candidate’s frequent negative comments on Hispanic immigrants. “If they come here, it’s not because they want to come and destroy the place. It’s because they have a big reason to come. … Some people need better money to survive better and some people just don’t have homes.”

Her classmate, Jamiera Willis, said Americans should let the president-elect know what they think, even if they didn’t vote for Trump.

“Although he doesn’t get into the office until January, I think people should start writing letters so he can already be organized for when he gets in the office so that he knows what the citizens of America want,” she said.

From left: Terra Flye and Shantorianna Forte are student body officers at Nashville's Stratford High School.
PHOTO: Grace Tatter
From left: Terra Flye and Shantorianna Forte are student body officers at Nashville’s Stratford High School.

At Stratford High School in Nashville, students continued the presidential debate in one criminal justice class. The teacher picked Lawrence Burns to be Trump, which suited the 17-year-old senior just fine. “I would have chosen Donald Trump because he tells the truth about what he’s going to do,” said Lawrence, who expects his candidate to “fight ISIS.”

But Shantorianna Forte, president of the study body at Stratford, had a different viewpoint based on watching all the presidential debates as part of her homework. “(Trump) was being rude. He would interrupt. He seemed very childish. In my economics class, we debated, and the students who liked Trump acted just like him. They would interrupt and were very childish,” said the 17-year-old senior.

Teachers grappled with how to frame the election in a constructive way, especially dealing with the issue of race in a campaign that was often racially charged. Matara Harris, who teaches fourth grade at a Memphis school where most students are black or Hispanic, said the goal is to teach students that “they can still make a difference in their own way.”

“That’s not dependent on who’s in office. It takes all of us together to help the person in office to realize what’s important and what needs to be the focus,” she said.

Chalkbeat reporters Caroline Bauman, Laura Faith Kebede and Grace Tatter contributed to this report.

taking initiative

Parents, students press Aurora school district to pass resolution assuring safety of immigrant students

A reading lesson this spring at an Aurora family resource center. (Kathryn Scott, The Denver Post).

As a mother of four U.S.-born schoolchildren, but being in the country illegally herself, Arely worries that immigration agents might pick her up while she is taking her kids to school one day.

But what worries her more is that her children could be picking up on her fears — and that it might hurt their focus in school. She’s also concerned for those immigrant students who could be at risk for deportation.

“There are a lot of us who are looking for the security or reassurance from the district — most of all, that our children will be safe,” said Arely, who spoke on the condition that her full name not be used because of her immigration status.

Dozens of Aurora students and parents, including Arely, are pressing the school board of Aurora Public Schools to adopt a proposed resolution for “safe and inclusive” schools that they say would help. While the Denver school board adopted a similar resolution in February, their peers in Aurora have yet to act.

“Knowing that Aurora doesn’t yet have a resolution makes me feel insecure,” Arely said.

A district spokesman said in an email the resolution won’t be on the agenda of the board’s next meeting, on Tuesday, but that it would be “part of the Board’s open dialogue.”

“Anytime the Board is contemplating a community request, the Board first openly discusses their interest in a public forum,” spokesman Corey Christiansen said. “If there is interest, the Board would decide to move forward at a future meeting to issue a statement.”

Two board members reached for comment Wednesday — Dan Jorgensen and Monica Colbert — both said they supported the resolution.

“I believe that not only do we have a legal obligation to serve all students, more importantly, we have a moral obligation to make sure that all of our students are in safe and inclusive environments,” Jorgensen said. “This resolution is about doing the right thing, including providing a public statement of support and directing reasonable action on behalf of all children in our schools.”

Colbert said not supporting the resolution would deny the strength of the district’s diversity.

“In a district like Aurora where our biggest strength is our diversity, for us not to adopt a resolution such as this would be not well serving of our students,” Colbert said.

The document presented by parents and students would direct the school district to ensure officials are not collecting information about the legal status of students or their families, that they keep schools safe for students and families, and that a memo the district sent to school leaders in February gets translated and made available to all families and all staff.

The memo outlines the procedures Aurora school leaders should follow if interacting with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents at a school.

The resolution also calls for district officials to write a plan within 90 days for how to react if an immigration enforcement action prevents a parent from picking up a student from school.

The parents and students started sharing concerns at end of last year after President Trump’s election stoked fears in immigrant communities.

Working with RISE, a nonprofit that works with low-income parents to give them a voice in education issues, the parents and students researched other school district resolutions and worked on drafting their own.

“We didn’t want any words that seemed as if they were demanding,” Arely said. “We just want equality for our children.”

Anjali Ehujel, a 17-year-old senior at Aurora Central High School, said she has seen her friends suffering and worried a lot recently. The most important part of the resolution for her was making sure her fellow students were no longer so distracted.

“This is important because we all need education and we all have rights to get education,” Ehujel said.

Another student, Mu Cheet Cheet, a 14-year-old freshman at Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, said she got involved because she saw other students at her school bullied and depressed as they were teased about the possibility of being deported.

“For refugees they would just watch because they didn’t know how to help,” Cheet said. “When I came here, I also wanted to feel safe.”

Cheet, who came to the country as a refugee from Thailand seven years ago, found that working on the resolution was one way she could help.

More than 82 percent of the Aurora district’s 41,000 students are students of color. The city and district are one of the most diverse in the state.

“We really hope APS approves this resolution given it’s the most diverse district in the state,” said Veronica Palmer, the executive director of RISE Colorado.

Here is the draft resolution:



FINAL Resolution to Keep APS Safe and Inclusive 4 21 17 (Text)

maybe next year

Senate Republicans kill bill that would have taken broad look at public education in Colorado

Students at Vista PEAK Exploratory in Aurora work on a math assignment. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

A Republican-controlled state Senate committee spiked a bill Wednesday that was meant to spark a broad conversation about the future of Colorado’s public schools.

Some lawmakers hoped House Bill 1287 would help sell voters on raising taxes to better fund the state’s schools. But the Senate State, Military and Veterans Affairs committee voted 3-2 along party lines to kill the legislation, which would have created a series of committees to examine the state’s education laws and make recommendations for changing them.

Republicans objected to the bill because they didn’t want to create more bureaucracy, and they thought it was a ploy to raise taxes.

The bill’s demise was a defeat for a group of the state’s most authoritative lawmakers on education policy. It was one of the top legislative priorities for state Reps. Millie Hamner, a Dillon Democrat, and Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican. Both serve of the state’s budget committee and rallied lawmakers around the bill.

Rankin called the bill the most important of his legislative career.

“I’m bitterly disappointed, although it was expected,” he said. “I certainly don’t intend to give up. We’ve worked for over three years to move this idea forward. We thought we built a bipartisan coalition that was interested and wanted to help. We thought we were making really good progress.”

Hamner also expressed dismay over the bill’s death.

“To die quietly like that in Senate was really, really surprising and disappointing,” Hamner said. “Do we still have a need to establish a vision for the future of our kids? Yes. Apparently we’re going to have to do that without our Senate majority.”

Last-minute amendments brought by state Sen. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican, to address Senate GOP leadership’s concerns could not save the bill.

Supporters of the bill said the legislature needed to step in to help rethink Colorado’s education landscape holistically, not with piecemeal legislation. The state’s laws are outdated and clash with 21st century expectations, they said at Wednesday’s hearing.

“Our current collection of policies and laws have failed to keep pace with changes in expectations of our education system,” said Mark Sass, a Broomfield high school teacher and state director of a teacher fellowship program, Teach Plus. “We need a deliberate and collaborative conversation in our state, as to our vision of education.”

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Republican from Colorado Springs, said he supported the goal of the bill. His name was listed as a sponsor when the bill was first introduced. But he said he eventually concluded the bill was the wrong approach.

“I’m not sure this is the solution to get us there,” he said. “It’s time for us to take a bottom up approach. I get nervous about standing up and staffing and financing another government program.”

After the committee hearing, Sass said Republican lawmakers failed to realize their unique role in Colorado shaping statewide education policy. The state’s constitution gives no authority to the governor, the education commissioner or the State Board of Education to create a strategic plan.

“We need someone to drive this conversation,” he said. “If the legislature won’t, who will?”

Priola said in an interview that he had hoped for more time to lobby Senate leadership and members of the committee. Instead, he said he’d try again next year.

“We live in a state with 178 school districts and thousands of schools,” he said. “There can’t be one way of doing things, but there also can’t be 1,000. There has to be some commonality on what we’re doing and what direction we’re heading.”

Rankin was less committed in trying again next year.

“I want to think about,” he said. “I don’t think this elected, term-limited legislature with the background they come from can develop the kind of leadership needed for this movement.”

The death of House Bill 1287 puts another bipartisan piece of legislation on shaky ground.

House Bill 1340, sponsored by state Reps. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, and Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, would create a committee of lawmakers to study and make changes to the way Colorado funds its schools.

The state House of Representatives was expected to hold its final vote on that bill Wednesday morning. But Democratic leadership pushed the vote by a day.

Some Democrats in the House saw the two bills as a package, while Republicans in the Senate saw them as competing. With partisan rancor flaring in the waning days of the session, House Democrats could return the favor and kill the finance study bill.

Rankin, the House Republican, said he hoped his chamber’s leadership would let the finance study bill move forward. He introduced a similar bill two years ago but was unable to get the bill through the legislative process.

“I think it’s a good idea to take a hard look at school finance. Maybe we can get some dialogue going,” he said, adding that he believes lawmakers still need to think about a strategic plan for its schools.

Hamner, the House Democrat, said she also supported the finance study.

“I think their bill will be just fine,” she said. “Unless the Senate decides to kill it in State Affairs.”