First Person

My education career has focused on poor students of color. Why I’m rethinking that in the wake of Trump’s election

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
abbas-manjee

I grew up in a low-income, abusive household in Chicago. My teachers encouraged me to find my way out through college, and I reacted by taking school seriously — almost too seriously.

Once I got to college, I worked my butt off to land a job in investment banking, satisfying a need for prestige and security. I spent the next few years building complex financial models to help one mega-corporation swallow another, and made enough money to wipe out my college debt. I was also exhausted to the core and unfulfilled by my work. So I quit, opting instead to help young people from circumstances similar to mine. I applied to Teach for America, and was soon teaching math at an alternative high school in New York City.

There, I was focused on improving the achievement of black and Hispanic students, a cause Teach for America is devoted to. I’m thankful for that focus. Its teachers, and so many others, do the kind of life-saving work that helped me get to college years ago.

The results of the election, though, have me thinking about how complicated our American ecosystem really is — and whether our focus within improving education has been a bit short-sighted.

Throughout his campaign for president, Donald Trump spoke against inclusion and acceptance, the very things that make America great. He promised to erect a wall, deport immigrants, and force Muslims to register in a national database. He went out of his way to insult women. He was endorsed by David Duke and said nothing of it.

It’s also true that voters identified by exit polls as “white without a college degree” helped Donald Trump win the election and become the next president of the United States. A whopping 67 percent of them voted for Trump.

I think we can understand this in two ways. One is that it’s unrealistic to expect rural white Americans to weather the status quo as they suffer the effects of globalization. The other is institutionalized and systemic racism.

Education is one way to address both. And so, if America continues to fail to provide everyone with an equitable education — one that puts them on the pathway to economic prosperity — we all lose. People of color like me are likely to lose the most.

That doesn’t make the choices ahead of us any less complicated. Allocating resources for one group often results in unintended consequences for others. I also know that we can’t let up in our efforts to help students of color, who need us to continue to push for college and career initiatives aimed at bridging gaps created by generations of racist policies.

But we should simultaneously redouble our efforts to improve educational opportunity for rural, disenfranchised whites. When I attended Teach for America’s 25th anniversary summit in Washington D.C. last year, I attended a session called, “What is the Role of White Leaders on the Path to Educational Equity?” This certainly needs to be talked about. It’s also important to recognize that when we talk about being white in education, we tend to assume it’s a position of power. That privilege is real, but so are the limited opportunities for higher education and a sustaining career for plenty of white Americans.

Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” Our job now is to make sure that every American child has access to the best one.

Abbas Manjee is the chief academic officer at Kiddom, a platform that helps teachers design personalized learning experiences.

First Person

My students are worried about their families being deported. Here’s what I stopped world history class to tell them

PHOTO: Creative Commons / nickestamp
johnteaching

Queens, New York is an exciting place to teach world history. The borough is known for its diversity, and more than 1 million of its residents were born in a different country. The world’s history is the story of cultures represented right in my class.

That diversity is also why I knew my high-school students would have more than a mild curiosity about President-elect Donald Trump’s stance on immigration. According to the Migration Policy Institute, as many as 232,000 residents of the borough could be undocumented. More than 15,000 of them are children.

So, last week, I finished our lesson a few minutes early and asked my students a question. “Who here is concerned that someone they love will be forced to return to a home country under President Trump?” More than half of my students raised their hands.

I have read about what Trump has said he intends to do with regard to undocumented immigrants in this country — plans that have honestly left me disturbed. But I’m also aware that, when fear is pervasive, a well-timed lesson can be a calming force for students who are feeling anxious about what may happen to them.

So I did some research. My plan is to return to the topic in a few days with a brief lecture about what could occur to undocumented persons under a Trump presidency.

Raising this topic in a world history class may seem a bit incongruent. But part of my responsibility as a teacher is to make sure students feel safe and valued in my class. So I’ve decided that sharing some basic facts that are important for understanding this topic is a good place to start.

The first set of facts will be designed to assuage some fears. I think it’s a good idea to inform students about the extent to which New York City, like many cities across the country, has committed to making their families safe from deportation. The truth is that the city government has a three-decade-long tradition of making New York a sanctuary for undocumented people.

I’ll tell them that New York’s status as a “sanctuary city” began back in 1989, when Mayor Ed Koch signed Executive Order 124. That expressly forbade most city employees from telling the federal government if they suspected someone was in the United States illegally. That was enforced by mayors Dinkins and, surprisingly, Giuliani.

That order was ultimately struck down, but Mayor Bloomberg issued his own executive orders establishing a policy where most city employees cannot ask about an immigrant’s legal status or disclose someone’s documentation status under most circumstances. And it is important for my students to know that the exceptions to those policies pertain to undocumented people who are suspected of breaking the law.

In 2014, our current mayor, Bill de Blasio, signed two bills into law which promised even less cooperation with federal authorities seeking to remove undocumented city residents. In 2015, federal officials asked the city to detain under 1,000 people who were already in jail. The city transferred fewer than 220 to federal custody — less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the city’s estimated 500,000 undocumented residents.

I’m not inclined to leave my students with a false sense of safety, though. That would be irresponsible.

The truth is, if they live in communities where there are a lot of arrests, and Trump follows through with some of his campaign promises, then there is a greater likelihood that more deportations will occur. If he triples the number of ICE field officers in the U.S. and ends the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which grants a path to residency for people who grew up without documentation, the chance that my students will be affected will increase.

But facts don’t always have to represent good news in order to make a young person feel more secure. Young adults just don’t work that way. That’s why I will be sharing this information as well.

I will also tell them they do not need to face their concerns in isolation. Seeking out other people and organizations who handle this issue can be incredibly empowering. The New York State Youth Leadership Council is a great place for students to start.

The truth is no one knows whether Trump’s campaign promises will become reality. I also know that one teacher in one classroom isn’t going to do much to combat the reality that undocumented young people already live with real fear. But as we combat the “Trump effect,” facts can be helpful antidotes.

John Giambalvo is a social studies teacher at Information Technology High School in Long Island City, Queens. 

guest perspective

Rural Americans helped elect Donald Trump, but his ideas won’t help their schools. What will?

PHOTO: Alan Richard
The school in Bethune, Colorado, is among the rural schools and districts across the U.S. that struggles to find the resources to operate.

Rural and small-town voters helped Donald Trump win the White House this month. Some of those voters are now counting on him to bring change to their communities.

Whether that happens will be determined, in large part, by education. But rural schools often get little attention from our nation’s leaders, even though nearly 9 million students attend them — more than the enrollments of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and, incredibly, the next 75 largest school districts combined.

The challenges students face in many of those rural places are equally staggering. In 23 states, more than half of all rural students are from low-income families, the forthcoming Why Rural Matters report shows. Two years ago, that was true of only 16 states.

As the chair of the board of the nonprofit Rural School and Community Trust and a longtime education reporter, I’ve spent much of my career visiting these schools. And the central idea Trump has offered so far for improving education — providing billions of dollars in exchange for expanding school choice — makes little sense in most of those communities.

Rural students and families often have no viable choices beyond their local public school. That’s especially true for children of color in the rural Southeast, Southwest, and on Native American lands. In these areas, the next-closest school can be very far away. Trump’s vouchers, therefore, would rarely be a reasonable option. Charter schools aren’t prevalent in rural areas either, and likely never will be, given the expense of running isolated schools.

So if Trump’s school choice plans would have little impact on rural America, how could he and other leaders make an impact in the thousands of schools in places that supported him the most? What do they really need?

First, financial resources are flat-out scarce in many rural schools, and that leads to a far lower quality of education for students in poor communities.

If you don’t believe it, just go where I have in recent years. There’s Carrollton, Mississippi, where the county schools superintendent surrendered most of his own salary to help keep his destitute district afloat. No one there has ever discussed offering Advanced Placement courses.

The chicken-coop-turned-locker-room.
The chicken-coop-turned-locker-room.

When a mother in the all-black public schools there asked the school board to consider upgrading the old chicken coop her son’s high school football team used for a locker room, a white board member’s response was: If folks didn’t like it, maybe they didn’t need a football team. Meanwhile, Mississippi lawmakers disregarded a majority of voters statewide to increase basic school funding — by requiring more than a simple majority vote.

In Bethune, Colorado, about three hours east of Denver near the Kansas line, roughly 130 students attend school in a district that’s virtually bankrupt from state-imposed caps on local taxes. There were no foreign languages taught when I visited in 2015, despite a growing Hispanic community. They had art only because a child’s grandfather volunteered to teach it.

These communities are far from big urban and suburban school districts that spend generously on a per-student basis, and they need more money from the federal government and from their states. The funding in Trump’s plan could make a big difference: There’s often no other way for these schools to offer the classes and services students need. But tying those benefits to school choice doesn’t make sense. These districts can barely afford to operate the schools they have.

(Trump could also work to funnel a greater share of federal education funding to rural and small-town areas. But it won’t do the country much good to slash education budgets for other areas, and if his massive tax cuts bleed away the federal budget, it could harm students everywhere.)

A less-discussed, but no less important, issue is racial segregation, which continues to have a catastrophic impact on some rural schools.

In Summerton, South Carolina, population 1,000, where the first and most important of the cases that formed Brown v. Board of Education began, the public schools serve mainly African-American students while a small private school serves mainly white students. It’s been that way since the 1970s, a few years after court-mandated desegregation finally reached most majority-black communities in the South.

Hundreds of small private academies, once founded for the purposes of segregation, continue to thrive in the Black Belt from the Carolinas into Texas. Many white families in these areas have already made their own school choice, and vouchers in these communities would only subsidize this divide.

Schools can’t thrive, and school choice won’t work, without people grappling with this pervasive issue. We need new conversations about racism and the impact of such segregation — as do gentrifying urban and changing suburban areas. As the Hispanic population grows in the rural West, Midwest, and South, this will matter even more.

Trump, given his rhetoric about minorities and immigrants, can’t lead this conversation. So it will be up to local and state leaders, educators, and families to foster deeper dialogue. This isn’t easy, but I’ve seen powerful connections built across race and class through the Rural School and Community Trust’s programs, among others. In my experience, many students and adults are eager to discuss it given the opportunity.

A few other specific steps that could help rural schools:

  • Fixing Title I: Most poor small-town and rural districts receive less money per student under the federal Title I program than larger districts do — even when those larger districts have lower poverty rates, as U.S. News & World Report recently highlighted. Understandably, larger school districts have opposed changes to those formulas. But many of those districts have a greater ability than rural systems to make up for cuts through local taxes or by shifting other resources.
  • Encouraging new early childhood approaches: Child poverty rates are actually higher in rural areas than in urban areas, exposing many students to the “toxic stress” that researchers say inhibits brain development. But many rural children lack access to high-quality early health and education programs. While President Obama has championed universal pre-kindergarten, home-visiting health and education programs are just as promising. The Trump administration could pursue “social impact” funding for such efforts, a strategy House Speaker Paul Ryan and Obama actually agree on.
  • Addressing the shortage of educators: Many rural schools can’t offer the same salaries for teachers and principals than those in wealthy areas. This exacerbates shortages of quality educators, especially in science, math, foreign languages, and special education. I often think of the Bering Strait School District in Alaska, which serves about 1,800 students across a region the size of Minnesota. While an extreme example, it’s real — and many less remote places also struggle to find the educators they need. More innovation within grow-your-own rural educator programs, and more specialized teacher preparation for rural schools, would help.
  • Improving high-speed Internet access: In an age when many urbanites work wherever they carry their laptop, many rural communities lack adequate Internet speed. That makes it harder to provide a high-quality education and harder to attract teachers those districts need.
  • Pushing community-based learning: Higher academic standards and more challenging courses may help to boost the quality of education for rural students. “Place-based learning” can accomplish a lot, too. This strategy encourages students and educators to assess local challenges and then build project-based lessons to address them. The federal government may offer funding for these programs under the new Every Student Succeeds Act, but must ensure that rural districts have help to apply for any grants.

Rural children deserve this and more from all of us — and especially from the leaders their families have put into power.

Alan Richard is a veteran education writer, formerly of Education Week and the Southern Regional Education Board, and he currently chairs the board of the nonprofit Rural School and Community Trust. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia.