Student diversity

Amid anti-refugee political rhetoric, Nashville schools welcome displaced students

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students at Nashville's Tusculum Elementary School prepare for a classroom Thanksgiving feast as part of a 2015 lesson on religious freedom. Many of Tusculum's students are immigrants and refugees from around the world.

Wearing a colorful Native American headdress made of construction paper, Aziz joins his classmates in a Thanksgiving lesson about pilgrims who fled England in search of freedom. It’s a story that resonates with the fourth-grader at Tusculum Elementary School, which has a sizeable and growing refugee population.

Originally from Afghanistan, Aziz tells teacher Devon Garrett that he also left his home — because of “mean people” with machine guns.

Such harrowing stories are among the real-world lessons in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, which continues to serve a diverse and growing refugee population amid a recent wave of anti-refugee sentiment in America. Some students are from Syria, and school officials say they’re more committed than ever to serving their share of the hundreds of thousands of people being displaced by war in Syria.

“Whether they’re a refugee, immigrant or native-born, when they’re in our school system, then we must give them the best education possible,” said Kevin Stacy, director of English language learner programs for the Nashville district. “They deserve the quality of an equal education.”

Nashville’s refugee population has been growing since the 1990s when Kurdish refugees began settling in the city during the first Gulf war. Since then, a steady stream of school-age refugees have arrived in Nashville. Garrett has a new student in her class almost every week from countries including Syria, Iraq, Myanmar, Bhutan and Somalia.

The district serves 830 refugee students, or about 1 percent of its 86,000 students.

To meet both personal and academic needs, the school system partners with churches and nonprofit organizations to create a web of support for refugee students and their families. Together, they provide clothes, food and legal services.

Most of the district’s refugee students attend schools in the south Nashville community of Tusculum, where Jeger Ali, who is fluent in Kurdish and Arabic, works for the school district as a family engagement specialist.

“Imagine not knowing the language, not knowing anyone,” said Ali, himself a former refugee. “When (families) see someone who speaks the language, maybe from the community, it’s helpful.”

Ali moved to Nashville seven years ago from Iraq, where he was a translator for the U.S. military. He came to Nashville to be near family who moved as Kurdish refugees during the 1990s. His parents still live in Iraq and are seeking refugee status to join him in the United States.

Because of his background and linguistic skills, Ali understands the challenges of refugee families and is an invaluable resource for newly arrived parents who have lots of questions about schools. The very idea of a family engagement specialist is strange to refugees from many other nations, where parents aren’t as involved in a child’s schooling.

Tusculum principal Alison McMahon says newly arrived parents meeting with her often nod in agreement with the plans she details for their child. “That’s not always good because parents know their kids better than anyone,” she said.

In addition to providing family engagement specialists who advocate for refugee students, the district offers adult English classes and a parent ambassador program that pairs parents with bilingual parent mentors.

At Tusculum, school leaders are especially in tune with the needs of the school’s refugee families. During Thanksgiving week, the students toted home bags of rice and beans nearly as big as they were. At the district level, legal services are provided for parents who need help navigating leases and avoiding scams.

“We understand that families aren’t going to do well if they’re worried about something,” said Kevin Stacy, director of English learner services.

For Stacy and Ali, the job is not only to educate refugees but to educate educators too.

“We help educate the district on what does it mean to learn a language and be a refugee at the same time? What is it like to come from a war-torn area?” Stacy said.

Many teachers choose Tusculum to work with students from other cultures. Nearly all of Kim Fuller’s first- and second-grade students have siblings across the hall in Garrett’s class.

Previously, she taught at Kirkpatrick Elementary, a majority black school, and loved it. “I thought I would be there forever,” she said. But when more English language learners were introduced to Kirkpatrick through a rezoning, she fell in love with the challenge, earned her EL certification, and ended up at Tusculum.

With Nashville’s growing refugee and immigrant population, the district needs more educators like Fuller and Garrett and more translators like Ali.

“These kids are sweet as pie, but this is maybe my most difficult class because they don’t understand,” said Tusculum computer teacher Clinton Johnson. He is not EL-certified but, on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, he was in constant motion helping Garrett’s students with a typing program. Kids kept getting stuck at the same place — when the instructions told them to type an “F,” instead of clicking on it.

Map
A hallway map shows where Tusculum refugee students came from before moving to Nashville.

Overall, Johnson and other teachers at Tusculum consider the students a source of vibrancy, despite the challenges. It’s not just the new arrivals who get an education on American culture; their Nashville-born peers get to learn about other cultures too.

The diversity is a source of pride at Tusculum. One hallway bulletin board displays a map showing where all of the school’s refugee students came from, with pictures of their smiling faces. Native-born students enjoy helping their new neighbors and like to learn words in different languages. And political tensions around refugees haven’t thus far impacted students, according to educators, who say that bullying doesn’t stray from elementary school norms.

The goal is for students like Aziz eventually to be in mainstream classes — a satisfying transition that Ali understands from personal experience. His cousins were students like those in Garrett’s class when they arrived in Nashville more than 20 years ago, fresh out of refugee camps in Turkey.

“And now, they are doctors and registered nurses and policemen and teachers,” he said. “They’re part of the community.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

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

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede