Roll call!

Why some Tennessee students skipped school for ‘A Day Without Immigrants’

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Students mill outside of Kingsbury High School in this 2016 photo. Kingsbury serves a significant number of immigrant students in Memphis, and many participated Thursday in nationwide protests to highlight what “A Day Without Immigrants" is like.

Daniel Casas said he stayed home from school Thursday to show Memphis what life would be like without immigrants.

A senior at Kingsbury High School, Casas was among hundreds of students across Tennessee who joined “A Day Without Immigrants,” a nationwide boycott organized in response to President Trump’s crackdown on immigration. His family and many of his friends participated too.

“We want to show that we make a difference,” said Casas, who was born in Mexico and has lived in Memphis for 17 years. “We contribute to society; we run stores and shops; we fill classrooms with students who want to work hard.”

Daniel Casas, right, with Kingsbury High School Principal Terry Ross

It’s uncertain how many students participated across Tennessee, as districts were still compiling their absentee reports on Thursday. But based on conversations with students and educators, the boycott was felt in numerous schools in Memphis and Nashville, which have growing populations of immigrant students.

At Kingsbury, there were reports that about half of the student body stayed home.

The protest was also felt at Aurora College Academy, where about 30 percent of the Memphis charter school’s 275 students were absent.

“We knew there were rumblings of this, but to be missing this many students is a surprise for us,” said Principal Grant Monda, whose school population is about half Hispanic. “We’re close to a 96 percent attendance rate for any given day.”

Knowledge Academies High School, located in Nashville’s Antioch community, recorded absences for about half of its 200 students, though the impact was felt more in some classes than others. “We have one science class that usually has 20 students, but today it only had five,” said Martel Graham, director of the charter school.

Across America, the boycott’s effect was also visible at construction companies, restaurants and other businesses.

Some educators said they began hearing earlier this week about #adaywithoutimmigrants and tried to prepare.

In Nashville, Chief of Schools Sito Narcisse emailed all principals on Wednesday to remind them of the district’s policy related to unexcused absences. The bottom line: While Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools understands the uncertainty and confusion being experienced by immigrant families, the best place for students to be is still in school. Absences due to the protests will not be excused.

“While we respect the democratic right to participate in peaceful protest, our responsibility as a school district is to ensure students are in school receiving a great education every day,” Narcisse wrote. “For that reason, all students and staff are expected to be in school throughout the day on Thursday so that teaching and learning can continue.”

Officials with Shelby County Schools declined to comment on communications to their schools or how the Memphis district was handling the absences.

Graham said Nashville’s Knowledge Academies sent emails and robocalls to staff and students’ families in advance of the protest.

“We told them we will be here to educate any students who come into the building. If you don’t come to school, it will be counted as an absence and students are expected to make up their work,” Graham said.

While the boycott was scheduled for a single day, the event will continue to be part of the conversation about what immigrant students are going through in America. At Aurora Collegiate in Memphis, the principal plans to use a school-wide staff meeting on Friday to “talk about the importance of what today represented for a significant portion of our student population.”

“We want to have conversations with our students that make them feel safe and assure them that we will keep learning here regardless of whatever policies are created on a state or federal level,” Monday said. “We want them to know they are safe here.”

Casas, 18, said he hopes his absence Thursday was noticed — and that his school and district will be more vocal in supporting immigrants as a result.

“I hope that what comes from today’s protests is that the schools realize they can’t take us for granted,” he said, “and that they will listen to our voices.”

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.