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.”

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.