Bridging the divide

Red meets blue: How students can find common ground in Trump’s America

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Student leaders in Memphis talk about how to facilitate conversations at their high schools to promote honesty, respect and understanding in a divided America.

A group of Arizona students proudly unfurl a Confederate flag during the Pledge of Allegiance. Male students in Indiana are emboldened to touch girls inappropriately. In Tennessee, a student declares that Spanish classes aren’t needed because President-elect Donald Trump is “sending all the Mexicans back.”

In the wake of Trump’s election in November, reports of derogatory language, harassment and even assault have increased substantially in America’s schools, according to a national survey of more than 10,000 educators.

Now as the nation prepares for Trump’s inauguration on Friday, numerous groups are working to equip student leaders to help their classmates find common ground in an increasingly polarized climate.

Chalkbeat listened in recently in Memphis as six student leaders from different schools and diverse backgrounds talked about how to foster understanding. The discussion was organized by Facing History and Ourselves, a nonprofit organization that trains students of diverse ideologies and identities to examine prejudice together.

The student leaders came together from public and private schools in parts of Shelby County that are both red and blue. They represent ideologies that are conservative, moderate and liberal in a city where nearly one in three people live in poverty and schools have become increasingly racially segregated. Here are five themes that emerged:

Recognize that polarization exists.

Students first must acknowledge that healing is needed, said Khamilla Johnson, a 17-year-old black student at Overton High School.

“There are a lot of people who feel like there’s no need to heal because there’s nothing wrong,” she said. “So, first of all, we have to educate people on the different perspectives of what’s happened, especially coming from the different diversity of America. There are certain groups that have felt attacked during the election, post-election.”

Set a tone that honors honesty and respect.

Leodan Rodriguez, a senior at White Station High School, helped to frame the conversation at his school just two days after Election Day.

In a video of his remarks over the school’s loudspeaker, Rodriguez called on classmates to focus on their similarities in one of the most diverse schools in the city. It was important, he said, to assure students that they could speak out honestly, as long as they do so respectfully.

“From there, so many conversations were brought in different classes with so many groups of students, which I really liked,” said Rodriguez, a first-generation Mexican-American who voted in his first presidential election in November. Before that day, “I felt like there was such a lack of conversation and a lack of exposure to this type of environment where you’re able to speak out and not be necessarily judged for it.”

Among those who felt anxiety at her school was Addie Quinlen, an 18-year-old senior at St. Mary’s Episcopal School, who voted for a third-party candidate. As a white conservative, she felt under attack and ostracized for her beliefs amid the heat of the campaign rhetoric.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Amal Altareb speaks with student leaders from other schools.

“(Students and teachers were) looking at Donald Trump and saying this man is hateful. This man is intolerant. And it felt like everyone was turning around and treating his supporters in the same way,” she said of the day after the election. “Even if you don’t feel like you can’t respect their opinion, you can respect their right to their opinion. And I think my school lost that that day. But hopefully we can regain that.”

A climate of fear and anxiety can have a chilling effect on free speech, said Amal Altareb, a Muslim who attends Central High School. She said that, though most students at her school were upset by Trump’s victory, many would not speak up during class discussions.

“What I didn’t like was in every classroom that I went to, almost the whole class would agree on the same side and I felt like there were some students who disagreed but they did not have enough courage to say I disagree with you because the whole class would attack them,” she said.

Through Facing History and Ourselves, student leaders are trained to facilitate discussion, often setting up “contracts” that include showing respect, being honest, suspending judgment, and not making assumptions about others with different opinions.


Read Chalkbeat’s story on what we saw and heard in Tennessee schools on the day after Election Day.


“When everyone gets to talk, everyone talks less” from Chalkbeat Tennessee on Vimeo.

Identify common goals.

In a divisive climate, students must be reminded that they also have things in common, which can be a starting point for conversation, said Altareb.

“I think a way that could bridge the division in America is to remind everyone that everyone wants to make America great again,” the 16-year-old junior said of Trump’s campaign slogan. “Everyone wants to live a comfortable life where they’re not discriminated against, where they have jobs, good education, just whatever. Everyone wants to have a good life and that’s our common goal.”

“I’m going to trust my president-elect” from Chalkbeat Tennessee on Vimeo.

Watch after students who are vulnerable.

In an emotionally charged environment, it’s imperative to speak out against discrimination of vulnerable groups, the students agreed.

Ema Wagner

Rodriguez’s speech, for instance, was in response to reports that students yelled “Go Trump” in the halls of White Station High School in an effort to intimidate Hispanic students.

“On either side, we like to ignore certain groups of people because they’re small or they disagree with us, so we just want to put that out of our minds,” said Ema Wagner, a senior at White Station. “But with learning about different perspectives, we need to stop ignoring other people that are different than us because that’s just a sore that festers.”

Emphasize the value of listening to each other.

While Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton easily carried the vote in urban Memphis, Rahm Bakshi is a senior at Arlington High School in the Memphis bedroom community of Arlington, where Trump received strong support. Noting that his classmates’ political conversation happened mostly online, Bakshi observed that both conservative and liberal students became “echo chambers” of what they heard on social media, rather than seeking to listen to each other.

“In a lot of the mainstream media, I noticed a lot of fear mongering on both sides. That just divides everyone. Because, you know, fear is an emotion. It’s not rational,” Bakshi said. “And I feel like it still does happen on both sides.”

He continued: “It’s not about the side, it’s about the truth. I’d rather believe the truth than the agenda or narrative that someone is spewing for whoever.”

Quinlen hopes she and other student leaders can do a better job of promoting understanding as the nation transitions to a new president.

“I don’t think it’s possible for us to get it perfectly right, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work on it,” she said. “And that doesn’t mean that we can’t improve where we are.”

the final countdown

State legislators are down to the wire to pass the budget. Here are the education items to watch

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivers his State of the State address.

By the end of the week, lawmakers (may) have a deal on the big education funding issues facing the state, including how much to spend on public schools and whether college will become tuition-free for some New Yorkers.

It’s still unclear how everything shake out, especially as the state faces the prospect of federal budget cuts.

“In general, the policy issues are not the problem,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Tuesday afternoon, including college affordability in the mix of nearly settled policy issues. “The problem is spending.” (The speaker of the Assembly, on the other hand, said it was premature to consider anything settled since policy and spending are interconnected.)

The final details will decide whether the “foundation aid” formula will survive in its current form, if the city’s charter school cap will be lifted, and what rules the legislature will apply to any prospective tuition-free college plan. It is also unclear if the budget will pass before the deadline this year, since it could be delayed by federal upheaval or by legislators’ feud with the governor.

As lawmakers haggle and race toward an end-of-the-month deadline, here are the education issues we are watching.

Will the federal government interfere with education spending?

Cuomo cast doubt on whether the state could shoulder big spending increases, since it’s unclear whether the Republican-controlled federal government will slash New York’s overall funding. If that happens, one large increase that could be on the chopping block is education spending, Cuomo said.

“My position is we can handle modest adjustments in the budget,” Cuomo said. “We cannot handle dramatic increases.” The “two main areas” of spending, he noted, are Medicaid and education.

The governor has also raised the prospect of an “extender budget,” that could postpone action on spending.

The state devoted almost $25 billion to education spending this year. Cuomo’s proposed increase for education spending is $1 billion, which is lower than the increase proposed by the Senate ($1.2 billion), Assembly ($1.8 billion), or the state’s policymaking body ($2.1 billion).

The governor’s proposal also makes controversial changes to the “foundation aid” formula, which was designed, in part, to provide a boost to needier schools. Advocates call Cuomo’s change a “repeal” of foundation aid, though Cuomo’s office rejects that language.

Will the governor get his big free tuition package?

The governor indicated on Tuesday afternoon that college affordability was almost decided, saying “we basically have an agreement.”

But what’s in the deal?

The governor’s proposal, which he unveiled as his signature budget item this year, would provide free tuition at state schools for families making less than $125,000 per year. The Senate and the Assembly both presented different college affordability packages.

Leaders in the Senate suggested increasing the state’s current Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), which can be used at both public and private colleges.

The Assembly’s budget allows students more flexibility to qualify for aid. Currently, the governor’s plan requires students to be full-time in order to receive funding, which is defined as averaging 15 credits per semester. The Assembly’s plan would allow students to take two 12-credit semesters.

The Assembly’s budget would also let students reserve a third of their Pell grants to pay for non-tuition expenses, instead of requiring that students use Pell grant money to fund tuition first. It would also let families making up to $150,000 per year take advantage of the plan in the fourth year of the program.

What’s at stake for charter schools?

The governor proposed lifting the charter school cap in New York City and creating one cap for the state. Charter school tuition could also be unfrozen this year.

The sticking point for both measures is the Assembly, whose budget rejects the governor’s proposals to provide more help to charter schools. Mayor Bill de Blasio also spoke out against the changes, arguing they shifted costs to the city “to an exorbitant degree.” (Charter school advocates reject that analysis.)

Additionally, the governor’s budget would provide more money to charter schools moving into private space.

Anything else that’s interesting?

Of course.

State officials will decide whether to provide more money for My Brother’s Keeper, an initiative to help improve the education of boys and young men of color. Last year, the program got off the ground with $20 million and state officials said they’re looking for the same this year.

The State Education Department made a wish list of things they would like to see from the legislature. Among their priorities are changes to testing, including reinstating world language Regents exams and creating some project-based assessments.

Whether the legislature honors the Regents’ priorities is important because Chancellor Betty Rosa suggested her vision for rethinking education policy in New York state hinges on the ability to get funding from the legislature.

“As policymakers, we are very actively involved in saying: These are the areas that we are very concerned [about],” Rosa said in an interview with Chalkbeat. “We want to make sure that these are the areas that we get funding in order to move the educational agenda for the state forward.”

Funding fight

In Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Colorado’s teachers union finds a useful face for the opposition

PHOTO: Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, is working to fuel opposition to a bill that would boost charter school funding by associating it with U.S Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

The union on its Facebook page published an image of DeVos and branded Senate Bill 61 as a “Betsy DeVos-Style Privatization Bill.”

The bill, which has bipartisan sponsors in both chambers, would require school districts to equally share money from local tax increases with charter schools. It was recently approved by the state Senate — but not without a fierce fight from a bloc of lawmakers who taught in district-run public schools.

The union isn’t the only group using DeVos’s image to oppose legislation making its way through the statehouse. A new political nonprofit, Colorado Children Before Profits, launched its own website linking DeVos and President Donald Trump to the charter school funding bill, and two other bills that would change the way Colorado funds schools.

DeVos, a Michigan billionaire who has long supported charter schools and vouchers for private schools, became an unexpected political lightning rod early in Trump’s administration.

PHOTO: CEA/Facebook
The Colorado Education Association posted this image to its Facebook page earlier in March.

In Colorado, the union and a group of parents protested outside U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner’s downtown Denver office, urging him to oppose her confirmation. Gardner ultimately voted to confirm DeVos.

DeVos has no formal role in the push for Senate Bill 61, which soon will be considered by the state House of Representatives.
But “there’s a natural tie,” argues Kerrie Dallman, CEA’s president.

“Betsy DeVos has long been connected to the movement to radically expand charter schools, as well as grow education vouchers and tax credits,” Dallman said. “We’re concerned because there is so little accountability in that movement, and a lack of transparency.”

Luke Ragland, president of Ready Colorado, a conservative education reform organization, said the union’s use of DeVos is “typical D.C.-style politics.”

“The teachers union’s latest propaganda campaign is shameful,” Ragland said in a statement. “They are spreading demonstrably false information in an attempt to politicize an issue that has had longtime bipartisan support in Colorado. Senate Bill 61 is a uniquely Colorado solution, supported by local leaders in both parties.”