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.”

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.

Read to be Ready

McQueen takes stock of Tennessee’s literacy campaign after first year

A year ago, Tennessee began a quest to address its lagging literacy rate.

It started with its youngest readers through an initiative called Read to be Ready. The goal was to change the state’s approach to reading instruction beyond alphabet recognition to “authentic” experiences in which students read to learn — and for fun.

On Thursday, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen took stock of the progress after one year, laying out next steps that will focus on classroom instruction and teacher support.

The initiative, she said, must outlive its funding, which includes $4.2 million that pays mostly for a literacy coaching network and an additional $30 million for reading camps to serve 30,000 students during the next three summers.

Year Two will be about “building the framework” that can be used for years to come to teach Tennessee’s youngest students to read.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
McQueen holds up a report detailing the second year of Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

“We know the gains that we want to make will not happen overnight,” she said during a celebration event in Nashville attended by about 120 stakeholders. “The reason I’m truly optimistic is the success we have started seeing in such a short period of time.”

Researchers found that schools participating in the state’s new literacy coaching network invested significantly more time in reading comprehension last year in grades K-2 — 67 percent, compared to 37 percent in 2015.

But Tennessee has a heavy lift ahead. Only a third of its fourth-graders are proficient in reading, according to the most recent National Assessment of Education Progress. The state wants to get 75 percent of its third-graders reading on grade level by 2025.

The new network of literacy coaches sprawls across two-thirds of the state’s districts and includes 200 teacher-coaches. Working with other teachers, they select texts designed to engage and challenge students to practice more on reading and writing, and less on filling out worksheets.

“That’s why we’re investing so much in you as teachers and educators, saying your knowledge matters,” McQueen said.

Michael Ramsey, an instructional coach in Grainger County, is already seeing changes at his elementary school.

“With the coaching network, teachers have the opportunity to reflect and take (instruction) to the next step,” he said.

But, “it takes time,” Ramsey said of training the teachers and working with students. He urged state and local leaders to “just stay consistent and give us time.”