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.

fact-finding mission

Signal Mountain leaders look to Shelby County as model for school district secession

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
From left: Bartlett City Schools Director David Stephens and Lakeland School System Director Ted Horrell update state legislators on their new districts in 2015.

A cluster of towns that broke off from Shelby County Schools to create their own school systems in 2014 is about to host visitors from another Tennessee town looking into the viability of leaving Hamilton County Schools.

A committee from Signal Mountain, on the outskirts of Chattanooga, is scheduled next week to visit with leaders from Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Millington and Germantown. Along with Lakeland, the six towns have just completed a third year of operating their own school systems, just outside of Memphis.

Signal Mountain is in its second year of discussions about a possible pullout from the Chattanooga-based district. The community has three of Hamilton County’s higher-performing schools, as well as fewer poor and minority students. Its Town Council created the committee in January to look into the feasibility of creating a separate district, which would siphon off both students and revenue from Hamilton County Schools.

As part of their visit, the seven-member panel will hold open meetings with municipality leaders at Arlington High School. Signal Mountain Mayor Chris Howley and Councilwoman Amy Speek are scheduled to join the sessions.

“We felt it was valuable for us to meet with board members and school officials to gain insight on how the process went, what they learned, what they might do differently,” said committee chairman John Friedl.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” he added.

The visit will come days after Shelby County’s secessions were spotlighted in a national report on the trend of wealthier and whiter communities to splinter off from larger school systems that are poorer and more diverse. The report was crafted by EdBuild, a nonprofit research group that focuses on school funding and equity. The report also listed Signal Mountain among nine towns across the nation that are actively pursuing pullouts.

The town of Red Bank, which is just east of Signal Mountain, also recently announced it will investigate launching a separate district.

If Signal Mountain residents vote eventually to create their own school system, they would use the same Tennessee law that allowed municipality voters in Shelby County to exit Tennessee’s largest district. The law, which EdBuild calls one of the most permissive in the nation, allows a town with at least 1,500 students to pull out without the approval of the district it leaves behind or consideration of the impact on racial or socioeconomic equity.

Signal Mountain leaders will focus next week on lessons learned by leaders in Shelby County.

After breaking off in 2014, the municipalities gained about 30,000 students, 33 schools and all of the challenges that come with launching new school systems. That includes funding, staffing and facilities. “We all started out with a central office staff of one, … and we had to build from there,” Millington Municipal Schools Director David Roper said during a 2015 presentation to state lawmakers.

The Shelby County breakaway also ended up in court over charges that the exit was racially motivated. But a federal judge eventually dismissed that lawsuit by Shelby County Schools.

The Signal Mountain exploration also has been met with some community resistance. A group called Stay with HCSD is advocating staying with Hamilton County Schools.

You can view the full schedule of Signal Mountain leaders’ visit below:

essa watch

Growth plus proficiency? Why states are turning to a hybrid strategy for judging schools (and why some experts say they shouldn’t)

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

A compromise in a long-running debate over how to evaluate schools is gaining traction as states rewrite their accountability systems. But experts say it could come with familiar drawbacks — especially in fairly accounting for the challenges poor students face.

Under No Child Left Behind, schools were judged by the share of students deemed proficient in math and reading. The new federal education law, ESSA, gives states new flexibility to consider students’ academic growth, too.

This is an approach that some advocates and researchers have long pushed for, saying that is a better way to judge schools that serve students who start far below proficiency.

But some states are proposing measuring academic growth through a hybrid approach that combines both growth and proficiency. (That’s in addition to using proficiency metrics where they are required.) A Chalkbeat review of ESSA plans found that a number of places plan to use a hybrid metric to help decide which of their schools are struggling the most, including Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Washington D.C.

The idea has a high-profile supporter: The Education Trust, a civil rights and education group now headed by former U.S. Education Secretary John King. But a number of researchers say the approach risks unfairly penalizing high-poverty schools and maintaining some of the widely perceived flaws of No Child Left Behind.

These questions have emerged because ESSA, the new federal education law, requires states to use academic and other measures to identify 5 percent of their schools as struggling. States have the option to include “academic progress” in their accountability systems, and many are doing so.

This is a welcome trend, says Andrew Ho of Harvard, who has written a book on the different ways to measure student progress. Systems that use proficiency percentages alone, rather than accounting for growth, “are a disaster both for measurement and for usefulness,” Ho said. “They are extremely coarse and dangerously misleading.”

Under a growth-to-proficiency model, Student A would be considered on track to proficiency by grade 6 based on the growth from grades 3 to 4, but students B and C would not. (Image: Ho’s “A Practitioner’s Guide to Growth Models”)

States that propose using this hybrid measure — commonly called “growth to proficiency” or “growth to standard” — have offered varying degrees of specificity in their plans about how they will calculate it. The basic idea is to measure whether students will meet or maintain proficiency within a set period of time, assuming they continue to grow at the same rate. Schools are credited for students deemed on track to meet the standard in the not-too-distant future, even if the students aren’t there yet.

This tends to rewards schools that serve students who are already near, at, or above the proficiency standard, meaning that schools with a large number of students in poverty will likely get lower scores on average.

It also worries researchers wary of re-creating systems that incentivize schools to focus on students near the proficiency bar, as opposed to those far below or above it. That phenomenon has been observed in some research on accountability systems focused on proficiency.

“As an accountability metric, growth-to-proficiency is a terrible idea for the same reason that achievement-level metrics are a bad idea — it is just about poverty,” said Cory Koedel, an economist at the University of Missouri who has studied school accountability. He has argued that policymakers should try to ensure ratings are not correlated with measures of poverty.

Researchers tend to say that the strongest basis for sorting out the best and worst schools (at least as measured by test scores) is to rely on sophisticated value-added calculations. Those models control for where students start, as well as demographic factors like poverty.

“If there are going to be high stakes — and I don’t suggest that there should be — then the more technically rigorous value-added models become the best way to approach teacher- and school-level accountability,” said Ho.

A large share of states are planning to use a value-added measure or similar approach as part of their accountability systems, in several cases alongside the growth-to-proficiency measure.

Some research has found that these complex statistical models can be an accurate gauge of how teachers and schools affect students’ test scores, though it remains the subject of significant academic debate.

But The Education Trust, which has long backed test-based accountability, is skeptical of these growth models, saying that they water down expectations for disadvantaged students and don’t measure whether students will eventually reach proficiency.

“Comparisons to peers won’t reveal whether that student will one day meet grade-level standards,” the group’s Midwest chapter stated in a report on Michigan’s ESSA state plan. “This risks setting lower expectations for students of color and low-income students, and does not incentivize schools to accelerate learning for historically underserved student groups.”

In an email Natasha Ushomirsky, EdTrust’s policy director, said the group supports measures like growth to proficiency over value-added models “because a) they do a better job of communicating expectations for raising student achievement, and b) they can be used to understand whether schools are accelerating learning for historically underserved students, and prompt them to do so.”

Of the value-added approach, Ushomirsky said, “A lower-scoring student is likely to be compared only to other lower-scoring students, while a higher-scoring student is compared to other higher-scoring students. This means that the same … score may represent very different amounts of progress for these two students.”

Marty West, a professor at Harvard, says the most prudent approach is to report proficiency data transparently, but to use value-added growth to identify struggling schools for accountability purposes.

“There are just too many unintended consequences from using [proficiency] or any hybrid approach as the basis of your performance evaluation system,” he said.

“The most obvious is making educators less interested in teaching in [high-poverty] schools because they know they have an uphill battle with respect to any accountability rating — and that’s the last thing we want.”

This story has been updated to include additional information from Education Trust.