decision 2016

Snack votes and ‘crazy’ debates: What the presidential election looks like through the eyes of an elementary school student

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Tatum Birnhak, Chloe Elton and Chloe Lane stood outside P.S. 41 selling baked goods on Election Day.

For many New York City students, the last few months have been a lesson in American democracy — for better or worse. Even with limited experience, many understood this election season has been abnormal.

“It’s crazy. A lot of people say it’s not supposed to be this way,” said fifth-grader Chloe Lane. “In the last election, it wasn’t this crazy.”

Chloe was one of a handful of students standing outside P.S. 41 in Greenwich Village Tuesday morning, capitalizing on the long polling lines at the school by selling baked goods to voters to benefit their school. Here’s what they had to say:

Chloe Elton and Chloe Lane, fifth-graders

To learn about the election, Chloe Lane and her classmate Chloe Elton participated in a vote of their own. Instead of picking presidential candidates, the students faced a real choice between three snacks: Goldfish, Pirate’s Booty and granola bars.

Each student was assigned a state and teachers tabulated their snack choices using a mock electoral college point system. To add to the drama, the students explained, they will find out the winner of their snack election Wednesday morning — and get to consume it on their next field trip.

Despite the allure of tasty snacks, Chloe Lane said the actual presidential election is “more exciting.”

Tatum Birnhak, third-grader

Tatum Birnhak did not participate in the fifth-grade snack election, but still managed to glean an understanding of how the electoral college works.

She explained that a state like Wyoming, which only has “three electoral vote things,” isn’t as important in the long run as a state with more people.

“Basically, if Trump wins a bunch of small states but Hillary wins the bigger states, Hillary can still win,” Tatum said.

When asked how she felt about Hillary Clinton, she exclaimed “Yay!” and explained her reasoning.“I think it would be a good thing that women would rule for once,” she said.

Calvin Noto shares his views on the election.
PHOTO: Monica Disare
Calvin Noto shares his views on the election.

Calvin Noto, third-grader

In Calvin Noto’s third-grade class, his teacher simulated elections with characters from fictional books. For president, Calvin had the option of voting for Jake Drake or Junie B. Jones, both title characters of popular children’s book series.

Calvin said he ended up going with Jake because his platform included a plan to raise taxes and improve education, including adding 15 extra minutes to each school day, which seemed important.

In his class election, Calvin didn’t have to listen to the candidates arguing like he did in the real presidential election.

“Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are basically insulting each other a lot,” he said.

Sabrina Noto and Dot Lethbridge discuss the presidential election.
PHOTO: Monica Disare
Sabrina Noto and Dot Lethbridge discuss the presidential election.

Dot Lethbridge and Sabrina Noto, fifth-graders

Dot Lethbridge and Sabrina Noto’s teacher made sure they had an exhaustive understanding of each presidential candidate. They were given articles to read, worksheets that compared the candidates on major issues like immigration and national security, and even information about what Trump and Clinton were like as kids.

But they still feel a bit baffled by Trump’s plans. Dot, whose parents are both British immigrants, finds his views on immigration “annoying.” For Sabrina, the idea that Mexico would pay for a border wall is simply impractical.

“I don’t know how that’s even going to work,” she said. “The Great Wall of China did not work out.”

try try again

Feds to Colorado: You must count students who opt out of standardized tests

Seniors at Fairview High School in Boulder protested a standardized test in November 2014. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado’s policy of not penalizing schools that fail to meet federal requirements for student participation in state tests isn’t going over well with the federal government.

The U.S. Department of Education told state officials in a letter Friday that the policy is not acceptable. Colorado faces losing millions in federal funding if it doesn’t change course.

Federal officials flagged the opt-out policy in a response to the state’s plan to comply with the nation’s new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The federal government’s feedback to states is being closely watched for signs of how the department, under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, enforces a law that was meant to shift more decision-making away from the federal government and back to states.

“It didn’t come as a surprise,” Pat Chapman, the Colorado Department of Education’s executive director of federal programs, said of the feedback. “There’s a need to reconcile state board, state legislature and federal requirements and policies.”

In 2015, Colorado became a national epicenter for the testing opt-out movement, with thousands of students refusing to take state-required tests they didn’t see as valuable.

The State Board of Education, reasoning that it wasn’t fair to punish schools for something not in their control, adopted a policy forbidding the state education department from lowering schools’ quality ratings or otherwise punishing them for high refusal rates.

Previously, schools and districts could have seen their quality ratings lowered if they failed to annually test 95 percent of students in math and English. Schools that receive the state’s lowest quality ratings for five consecutive years face state intervention.

Education Commissioner Katy Anthes is expected to brief the state board at its regularly scheduled meeting this week on possible responses. The state has until Aug. 24 to submit a revised state plan or ask for an extension.

State board Chairwoman Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat, said Monday she doesn’t expect the board to take any formal action on rethinking the board’s policy this week. She declined to elaborate further.

“The board should have an opportunity to talk about this before I publicly comment,” she said.

Board member Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican who championed the policy, also held back Monday.

“I’m not sure what all the options available are,” he said. “We’ll wait and see what the staff’s analysis is and go from there.”

The state’s unique opt-out policy wasn’t the federal government’s only criticism.

The U.S. Department of Education also raised concern about the state’s long-term academic goals, using an average of test scores to determine school quality and monitoring how well students are learning English as a second language.

The federal department is asking the state to resubmit long-term academic goals for particular student groups, including different ethnic groups and students with disabilities.

In the current version of the plan, all student groups are expected to have the same average test score in six years, which is slightly higher than the state’s current average. The goals seem confusing and unattainable. For example, students with disabilities would need to make unprecedented progress, while Asian students would need to lose academic ground in order for the state to meet its targets.

As part of its plan, Colorado also proposed rating schools based on averages from English and math test scores, not how many students met grade-level proficiency as it did in the past.

While the use of average test scores was applauded by some, it isn’t flying with the federal education department. It wants Colorado to better explain how using average scores relates to measuring whether students are at grade level.

Moreover, U.S. officials want an assurance from Colorado that students who are far above grade-level won’t “overcompensate” for students who are not proficient. In other words, the department wants to make sure high-performers aren’t masking serious problems.

Dale Chu, vice president of policy and operations for America Succeeds, a nonprofit of business leaders that support education reform, helped a coalition of education groups review state plans independently of U.S. education department. The group, the Collaborative For Student Success, was critical of Colorado’s switch to using an average of test scores.

“There’s no sense of proficiency,” he said. “There has to be some sort of sense that kids are coming out school being able to read and compute and be on a successful path.”

Finally, the U.S. education department is also seeking more clarity on how the state is tracking the progress of students learning English as a second language. It said the state needs to provide a clear timeline on when it can provide specific goals and more detail about how the state will use data to determine school quality.

Chapman said the state education department did not have the data available to provide the federal government the information it needed. However, that’s changing and he expects that portion of the plan to be accepted.

The Every Student Succeeds Act was signed by President Barack Obama in 2015. The law required states to develop plans to outline how it would use federal dollars to improve schools, teacher quality and boost language proficiency for students learning English as a second language.

Pushback from the U.S. education department to states has been more stern than many education policy observers expected given DeVos’s support of school choice and local control.

Chapman said the federal department has been helpful.

“They’re asked to uphold the letter of the law, he said. “I do think they’re approaching it in anyway that they’re being helpful to states to write a plan that’s consistent with statue.”

Job One

Nashville’s grieving mayor visits schools on first day back to work

PHOTO: Michael Bunch/Metro Nashville
Nashville Mayor Megan Barry visits with a student at Buena Vista Elementary School on Monday, her first day back to work after the death of her only son to a drug overdose.

When Nashville Mayor Megan Barry came back to work this week after losing her only child to a drug overdose, her first stop was school.

She handed out backpacks and hugged children as they arrived at Buena Vista Elementary School on the opening day of a new school year. She also dropped by Pearl-Cohn High School to chat with students in the hallways.

“That was really meaningful and special to me,” Barry told reporters later, “because the first day of school in our household was always a joyous occasion. Max loved school, and our ritual was always that we would take a picture every day of the first day of school.”

Barry’s first order of business was both symbolic and therapeutic for the mayor, whose 22-year-old son died July 29 in Littleton, Colorado, where he had been working in construction.

“It was really great to be with kids this morning,” she said during an emotional news conference from her office on Monday. “The last nine days has been pretty — I don’t even have words.”

She noted that “every first day of school is a new beginning.”

In Nashville, home of the state’s second largest school district, Barry doesn’t control the schools, but she’s used her bully pulpit to help reshape public education since taking office in 2015. She worked with the school board to jump-start a misfired search for the city’s next schools director, ending with the hiring last year of Shawn Joseph, a top administrator from Maryland’s Prince George’s County.

She’s also sought to put 10,000 Nashville youth to work with “paid, meaningful internships” through an initiative that she says was inspired by a conversation with her son. He had bemoaned having to use his family connections to secure an internship while he was in college.

“My goal after that conversation with Max was to open the door for all of our kids in Nashville,” recalled Barry, who has pushed to combat rising youth violence by creating more activities outside of school.

Barry with Max as a youngster

Now, she has another new mission: fighting opioid abuse, after an autopsy showed that Max died from a combination of several drugs, including opioids.

“I don’t want his death to define his life, but we have to have a frank conversation about how he died,” she said. “The reality is that Max overdosed on drugs.”

“This is not an unfamiliar community and nationwide conversation,” she said, noting that Nashville alone had 245 overdoses involving opioids last year. “It’s a national epidemic.”