First Person

Editor's blog: Hosting an exchange student

Two weeks from today I will lose a daughter, and regain an only child.

Love is a Gamble puzzle
An aptly named puzzle completed by our exchange student

Our 17-year-old Serbian exchange student Nevena will  fly home after a year living with us and going to a non-traditional Boulder high school for the  2010-2011 school year.

During these nine-plus months, she has become part of our crazy little Boulder family, filling our house with fashion, Facebook and song (a very loud rendition of “Jolene” by Dolly Parton with a slight Serb accent is a recent favorite).

These final days are proving to be full of emotional upheaval played out with short fuses, big laughs, tickle attacks, the beginning of what is sure to be a flood of tears, and many, many trips to Ripple, our favorite self-serve frozen yogurt joint and healer of all woes.

From family of three to family of four – and back

We have supported her as if she was our own child, attending school events and helping as needed with homework. We bought a colorful 1,500-piece jigsaw puzzle and a stash of good chocolate, which helped her get through the most grueling month of January. We even sped up our decision to become truly American and buy a big-screen TV and sign up for Netflix. (We still use a rabbit ear antenna, though..)

Sisters, now and forever

Early on, we enrolled Nevena in Frequent Flyers, an aerial dance program after detecting a love of daring – yet potentially glamorous – feats.  We pushed  her to take the risk of making new friends (the hardest thing to do in a new country). In recent weeks, that has finally happened. She just returned from shopping on Pearl Street with a friend and has towering, golden Steve Madden heels to prove it. Knowing of her interest in international affairs, we hooked her up with Model United Nations. We shared in her excitement when she and a Japanese teammate brought home a trophy.

We took her skiing and signed her up for lessons. Never mind the bent ski pole. She learned to ice skate in America. She went on her first overnight camping trip with her CAP (Community Adventure Program) class at New Vista High School. At Christmas-time, Santa brought Nevena and our 8-year-old daughter Milena stockings plump with gifts. Same thing with the Easter bunny. We helped her carve her first pumpkin at Halloween. We took a spring break trip to Florida, baking on the beach and checking out the wild artwork of Salvador Dali. I took her shopping for prom dresses, and doted upon her with camera in hand as she appeared, looking like a Grecian goddess. Early on, my friend, a pilot, took her flying (turns out that was definitely against American Councils for International Education rules…. Oops!)

Most recently, we walked and jogged the Bolder Boulder, indoctrinating her in a very unique American ritual to celebrate Memorial Day. She now has God Bless the U.S.A. by Lee Greenwood stuck in her brain. She is proud to be a Serb with part-American heart.

Why did we do this?

We always wanted two children, but fate did not agree. Being host parents to Nevena gave us the opportunity. And over these months, we have fallen in love with her. I will always think of her as my Balkan daughter. Not only did she share her incredible spirit with us, she gave Milena a sister to hug and to harass, and a new way to think about her unusual name. Milena no longer talks about wanting to change her name to “Rachel.”

To parents of only children in particular, I highly recommend hosting an international student.

It’s not easy. Turns out having a person live with you for a year is the same as holding up a giant mirror and seeing – in sometimes disturbing relief – all the things you don’t like about yourself and your family. Truthfully, though, I’m thankful for that, too, because we needed to make some changes and we are now working on them.

This photo begs the question: How did we pass the background screening?

We decided very late in the game to host a foreign student. We had it in the back of our minds to have an exchange student when our daughter was in high school and when we were sure to be expert “parents of teens.” But our friends sent a pleading e-mail about Nevena, who is here on a scholarship from the U.S. State Department-sponsored A-SMYLE (American Serbia and Montenegro Youth Leadership Exchange) program. Her original placement had fallen apart. We looked at her sweet yet serious face and imagined her in Serbia with bags packed and nowhere to go. My husband is Serbian-American so there was a cultural connection, too. After five days of vigorous discussion, we said “OK.” Somehow, we passed the background screening and Nevena arrived exactly one week later. It felt then, as it feels now, “meant to be.”

As brutal as it is to see her go, her return home is also meant to be. I can only imagine how her mother and father must be counting the minutes until they can wrap their arms around this most wonderful person. We don’t know if we’ll ever see her again – but my gut says “yes.” I don’t believe Milena would have it any other way.

So, this is my blog post to say goodbye to Nevena and and to encourage parents to think about hosting an international student. It’s worth the risk. Some of the rewards are obvious, others I am sure we will continue to discover long after she leaves.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.