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.

cause and effect

Trump’s proposed AmeriCorps cuts would trim .03 percent of the federal budget — but slash support at 11,000 schools

PHOTO: Eric Gorski
City Year corps member doing service in a ninth-grade algebra classroom at Denver’s North High School. From left: student Alaya Martinez, corps member Patrick Santino and student Dorian Medina.

From when the first students arrive until the last ones leave, eight young adults in white AmeriCorps T-shirts are a constant presence at Denver’s North High, a comprehensive high school where “Viking Pride” has not traditionally translated to academic success.

The corps members, part of a program called City Year, help run North’s social justice and writing clubs, hold kids accountable for their attendance and behavior, and team up with teachers to make math and literacy skills stick with ninth-graders.

All of that could vanish next year. President Donald Trump is set to propose slashing the AmeriCorps program from the federal budget, according to a document obtained by The New York Times. That would cost more than 11,000 schools support that they use to help students who’ve fallen behind, build playgrounds, and offer after-school programs.

On a recent morning, North High School Principal Scott Wolf watched a City Year corps member pull four struggling students out of an algebra classroom and into a hallway, where he sat with a whiteboard explaining how to identify the intersection points of two variable equations.

“A student in those classrooms, they may otherwise just be checked out, sitting there not knowing what to do,” Wolf said. “The corps members allow us to provide supports we could not otherwise offer our kids. Our students open up and can relate to them.”

AmeriCorps has been threatened before, but members and supporters have good reason to fear this time could be different. President Trump has promised significant cuts to government programs, and Republicans control Congress and can easily sign off on them.

The prospect of the elimination of federal funding has brought uncertainty to the 80,000 working AmeriCorps members and the schools and communities that rely on them. It has also mobilized the organization’s leadership and supporters to make their case to Congress that the relatively modest investment — just .03 percent of the federal budget — is worth it.

“We are prepared for this,” said Morris Price, vice president and executive director of City Year Denver, which works in nine city schools. “We have to make a case every year anyway. Now we have to make that case not just at the local level but at the congressional level, of the impact we have. We can’t get lazy. This reminds us of that.”

The proposed cuts target the Corporation for National and Community Service, a $1 billion-a-year agency that finances programs run by AmeriCorps and Senior Corps, a volunteer organization for people over 55.

About half of the agency’s grant funding goes to education-related work, officials said, making it a significant player in school improvement efforts across the country. Its programs include City Year, College Possible, Playworks, Citizen Schools, the National College Advising Corps and a school-based foster grandparent program through Senior Corps.

“We are lucky that for more than 50 years, successive administrations of both parties have engaged with this concept of national service,” said Samantha Jo Warfield, spokeswoman for the Corporation for National and Community Service. “We know the best solutions come from outside Washington where ordinary citizens are doing extraordinary things.”

That federal support is leveraged to raise money from other sources, including private foundations, school districts, universities and colleges, and corporations. The end result is an additional $1.25 billion — more than the federal contribution, according to the agency.

AmeriCorps, however, has long been in the sights of conservative budget hawks and those who don’t believe it’s the government’s business to subsidize public service. (Corps members are not volunteers. They receive a stipend to help with living expenses, health insurance, and another $5,800 after the completion of each year to pay for additional education or to help pay off student loans.)

Blue Engine teaching assistant Alexandra DiAddezio helps 10th-grade geometry students with a project.

In cities ranging from New York to Denver and Memphis to Detroit, roughly 3,000 City Year corps members work alongside teachers and school leaders in long-struggling, high-poverty schools.

At Denver’s Manual High School, which is trying to reinvent itself yet again after a series of reforms, City Year corps members are integrated into all aspects of school life, principal Nick Dawkins said.

In addition to logging 875 hours helping students with literacy and math this year, corps members have surprised teachers with coffee and donuts, served free breakfast to students, and played chess and Monopoly with kids during tutoring, Dawkins said.

Part of the philosophy of City Year is that corps members — 18 to 25 years old — are not far removed from school themselves, allowing them to forge stronger relationships.

“In a tighter budget picture, I would hate to see programs like this go away,” Dawkins said. “I just think they are great kids and are great for school culture.”

In some cities, the possibility of losing funding for programs is throwing plans into question.

In Memphis, the school district is piloting an after-school tutoring program launched through City Year. Now in two Memphis schools, it is designed to grow to five schools and 50 AmeriCorps members by next school year.

Project director Karmin-Tia Greer said it’s too soon to tell what gutting AmeriCorps would mean for students in Memphis. Currently, AmeriCorps provides about 25 percent of the project’s funding.

“We hope that Congress will continue to support AmeriCorps, which has shown to positively impact students and schools in a cost-effective way,” she said.

In New York City, home to the nation’s largest school district, more than 250 City Year corps members serve in 24 public schools with about 13,000 total students, officials said. AmeriCorps members have also served in the city’s community schools and through programs like Blue Engine, Harlem Children’s Zone, and Teach for America, whose corps members use stipends to help pay for their master’s degree programs.

Through another AmeriCorps program, Citizen Schools, 41 corps members act as teaching fellows in high-needs middle schools in Harlem and Brooklyn, where they also help mobilize community partners to volunteer, said Wendy Lee, executive director of Citizen Schools NY.

“Our entire operating model is based on having AmeriCorps service members in schools,” Lee said. If funding were cut, she said, “We’d either have to rethink staffing or rethink the way our model is delivered.”

As AmeriCorps staff and supporters make their case to Congress, they will point to results.

A 2015 study examining three years of educational outcomes in 22 cities found that schools that partner with City Year were up to three times more likely to improve on math and English assessments.

In Denver, three-quarters of the schools with City Year corps members have moved up in the city’s rating system. That includes North High School, where Wolf, the principal, credited City Year for helping with the turnaround.

Brittanyanne Cahill, 26, who is in her second year of City Year Denver service, reports similar progress at the Hill Campus of Arts and Science.

The suburban Atlanta native majored in special education in college, did a stint student teaching, signed on as a corps member at Hill last year and came back this year as a “senior corps member” mentoring first-year corps members and working with students.

“My eyes have been opened,” she said. “There is so much hardship. Schools around the country are not able to provide the support that all students need to succeed.”

Eric Gorski reported from Denver and Cassi Feldman reported from New York. Chalkbeat reporter Caroline Bauman in Memphis contributed reporting.

'making american education great again'

Betsy DeVos, reportedly opposed to rolling back protections for transgender students, defends the changes

If Education Secretary Betsy DeVos opposed rolling back protections for transgender students behind the scenes this week, she wasn’t letting it show Thursday when she spoke to many of the country’s staunchest conservatives.

“This issue was a very huge example of the Obama administration’s overreach, to suggest a one-size-fits-all, federal government approach, top-down approach, to issues that are best dealt with and solved at a personal level and a local level,” DeVos said.

“I have made clear from the moment I have been in this job that it’s our job to protect students and to do that to the fullest extent that we can,” she continued. “And also to provide students, parents, and teachers with more flexibility around how education is delivered and how education is experienced, and to protect and preserve personal freedoms.”

The remarks, which DeVos made at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland, came the day after the Trump administration officials rescinded federal guidance instructing schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms of their choice. The New York Times reported that DeVos — who faced tough questions in her confirmation hearing about her support for gay rights — had opposed the changes, but lost a power struggle with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and President Donald Trump.

DeVos’s statement about the changes on Wednesday emphasized that she was committed to “protecting all students, including LGBTQ students.” States, districts, and schools that have established their own protections for transgender students will be able to continue to enforce those.

But some see the changes as an unnecessary blow to students vulnerable to bullying and whose rights to spaces like bathrooms aren’t specifically protected in many parts of the country.

“Supports for transgender students in K-12 schools change and save lives, and hurt no one,” Dr. Eliza Byard, the head of GLSEN, an advocacy group focused on the rights of gay students in schools, said in a statement.