After the election

Inside one Nashville afterschool program, homework and deportation questions happen side by side

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Patty Madera talks with students at an after school program at Nashville's Madison Middle the day after the presidential election.

When Patty Madera woke up on Wednesday morning and learned that Donald Trump had been elected president, her mind went first to the sixth-graders she would see that afternoon.

“My heart hurt,” she said.

For months, Madera has worked with a small group of Latino students, mostly girls, at Nashville’s Madison Middle School through an after-school program run jointly by the Nashville After Zone Alliance and the nonprofit Conexión Américas, which offers a range of services to Tennessee’s immigrant community.

Some of the students are citizens, born in Tennessee. Others immigrated here as recently as two years ago. Some are undocumented; many have undocumented relatives.

And all semester, sprinkled amid homework, computer games, and arts and crafts, they also shared anxiety induced by Trump’s campaign promises to limit immigration and force out many immigrants who are already here. They said they feared being bullied for speaking Spanish, seeing family members deported — or they themselves being forced to leave the country.

So Madera — like so many educators who work with immigrant students this week — walked into the Wednesday afternoon session wanting to create a space for the students to process the election results.

“They get made fun of for being Latina, and now they have this president who seems to not be sympathetic to them,” she said. “I wanted to talk to them, give them some sense of relief.”

That relief was sorely needed when Madera asked the girls to describe how they felt. “Offended!” “Attacked!” they shouted out.

Soraya Meija looked for a silver lining to her fear of being deported. “I feel sad — and happy,” she said. “I can see my cousins in Mexico.”

The students peppered Madera with questions that students of any ethnicity or national origin might share. What does it mean to be a Republican or a Democrat? How does the electoral college work, and how could Trump have won the election even if most people did not vote for him? Why didn’t people want a woman president? Together, they googled what the ballot looked like, how Tennessee voted, the major party platforms, and discussed the difference between rumors and facts.

But again and again, the answers took a different tenor because of the girls’ backgrounds.

“One time Donald Trump said this, but I don’t think it’s true — he said Mexicans bring drugs into the country and do bad things. Is that true?” one student asked.

“Not all of us!” Meija said quickly. “Just some.”

“He didn’t say ‘some,’” the first girl said quietly.

When the conversation turned to immigration and deportation, many of the girls seemed to think that their deportation was a forgone conclusion. Trump has pledged to deport people currently in the country illegally, but many students said they were concerned that all immigrants are under threat. “Can we stay here?” one girl asked.

Madera explained that citizens cannot be deported, and that checks and balances in the country’s political system mean that a lot of Trump’s promises might never come to pass. If policies do change, she said, the students and their families will have time to plan.

“If something scary comes up, we can fight it,” Madera said. “It’s not going to happen overnight.”

Conexión Américas will have a meeting for parents about possible changes to immigration policy in December. For now, Madera is focused on making sure her students have their fears calmed and their questions answered.

“I’m here, and I’m here to help you guys,” she told them. “I don’t want you to be afraid of the person who runs our country.”

measuring progress

At some Renewal schools, the city’s new ‘challenge’ targets require only tiny improvements

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio

When education officials settled on the goals each school in its high-profile Renewal program would have to meet, they allowed them to take three years to meet what are typically one-year goals.

And though some schools have struggled to meet those initial goals, most of them, it turned out, met at least one benchmark ahead of time. So the city came up with new ones — called “challenge targets” — to replace and “strengthen” the goals that schools reached early.

But, according to new data released last week, dozens of those challenge targets require the lowest possible amount of improvement: one hundredth of one point.

In total, just over a third of the 86 Renewal schools have to improve scores on either state math or reading tests by only .01 points above their current averages, according to a Chalkbeat review of the city’s benchmarks for this school year.

P.S. 154 in the Bronx, for instance, needs to boost its average score this spring from 2.48 to 2.49 in math, and 2.49 to 2.50 in reading — both of which are considered challenge targets. (The scores refer to state tests that are graded from one to four, and only scores of three or higher are considered passing.)

The modest goals continue to raise questions about the pace of change the city is expecting from the $400 million Renewal program, which infuses schools with social services and extra resources.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised “fast” improvements, rhetoric that is in tension with the benchmarks the city has released. (At a panel discussion last week, the head of the city’s principals union expressed frustration with the program’s incrementalism.)

In interviews, city officials defended the challenge targets, arguing that they are designed to give schools that already met “rigorous and realistic” goals an extra incentive to maintain or surpass their progress. But some observers noted the challenge targets are so similar to the original goals, in some cases, that calling them a challenge is hard to justify.

“When you see a challenge target that’s so close to current performance, you think, ‘What the heck is going on here?’” said Aaron Pallas, a sociology and education professor at Teachers College. “It’s really hard to see a .01 expected increase as a challenging target.”

Pallas said the modest gains expected in the city’s challenge targets could be the product of a central struggle baked into school turnaround efforts: the political need to have regular benchmarks to track progress, while knowing that low-performing schools can take years to accrue gains, if it happens at all.

Still, setting expectations too low is not likely to yield much useful information about school progress, Pallas said. And while it’s “hard to know what a challenging target is,” he said, “it’s probably greater than .1,” — ten times higher than some of the city’s targets for this school year.

For their part, education officials insist that the new goals are challenging — even if they only represent fractional increases — because they are technically all higher than the original goals, which the city has claimed were “rigorous.”

“If they’re ahead of [the original goals], keeping them on that target is definitely a challenge for them,” said Eric Ashton, the education department’s executive director for school performance.

Ashton noted that many of the city’s Renewal goals — which include measures such as attendance, graduation rates, and progress on state tests — are aggressive and require some schools to improve certain metrics by double-digit percentages. (Coalition School for Social Change, for instance, must improve its four-year graduation rate to 63.4 percent this year, a 17 percent increase.)

The city also defended the challenge targets on the grounds that if they were set too high, they might offer a misleading picture of which schools should be merged, closed or face other consequences.

“Targets do not keep increasing as high as possible each year,” education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye wrote in an email, “because we need the Renewal benchmarks to help differentiate between schools that are in need of more intensive interventions such as school redesign or consolidation, closure, or leadership change — and schools that need other forms of support like professional development or curriculum changes.”

“We believe schools must always work towards continued progress,” she added. “And a challenge target sets the bar above their achievement.”

moving forward

New York City officials: Large-scale school desegregation plan likely coming by June

PHOTO: BRIC TV
Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack, third from left, discussing the city's integration efforts.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised a “bigger vision” to address segregation in New York City schools, but officials have thus far kept details under wraps.

But they’ve been dribbling out some details, most notably a timeline for when a large-scale plan could be released. Officials at a town hall discussion in Brooklyn Thursday night reiterated that a plan would likely be released by June.

We’re “going to propose some new thinking that we have, both about some of the systems that we run and about ways that we can work together locally to make change,” said Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack, who is heading the department’s diversity efforts. “We expect it to come out by the end of the school year.”

BRIC TV host Brian Vines, who moderated the panel co-produced with WNYC, pushed for details. “Is there any one thing that you can at least give us a hint at that’s a concrete measure?” he asked.

But Wallack didn’t take the bait. “What I will say is that we are actually still engaged in conversations like this one, trying to get good ideas about how to move forward,” he said, adding that the education department is talking with educators, parents and schools interested in the issue.

New York City officials have been under pressure to address school segregation after a 2014 report called its schools some of the most racially divided in the country. More recently, debates over how best to change zone lines around schools on the Upper West Side and in Brooklyn have grown heated.

“We have a lot of hard work to do,” Wallack said. “But the mayor and chancellor are deeply committed to that work and to working with all of you to make that happen.”

Correction (Dec. 2, 2016): This story has been corrected to reflect that the town hall event was not the first time officials had described a timeline for releasing a plan.