New language

Meet the charter leader signing up to teach kids with no English skills — and the student who inspired her

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Edgardo, who came to Nashville from Honduras, stands with STEM Prep Middle School principal Kristin McGraner, who was inspired to start a special program for students like Edgardo who are new to speaking English.

Edgardo showed up in the office of a Nashville charter school in 2014, unable to speak a word of English. He was 12, and he was terrified.

Without telling any adults and without any money, Edgardo had run away from his home in Honduras, frightened at the prospect of becoming embroiled in the violence rocking the Central American country. He had been sent to Nashville to live with his father by U.S. immigration officers, who collected him in Houston.

In Honduras, “I didn’t even know if I was going to finish sixth grade,” he later said about his decision to leave home. “I had a lot of bad friends there.”

Once he was safe in Nashville, though, Edgardo thought he’d made a terrible mistake. He missed his mom. His little sisters, who were born in the U.S., could speak English far better than he could. And he couldn’t understand anything going on at school, where all of his classes were in English.

It was sink or swim — and he was sinking.

“I was like, oh my God, I am never going to learn anything this year, because they are not even showing me the English I have to know,” Edgardo remembers.

That’s why his father took him to Kristin McGraner, the principal of STEM Prep Middle, a Nashville charter school known for welcoming immigrant students: Could she help?

McGraner enrolled Edgardo at her school and quickly assigned a teacher to work with him on his English. But his case got her wondering. What if there were a program truly tailored to kids like Edgardo — one where students could learn English without feeling isolated and without falling behind? How much better would he do?

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Metro Nashville Public Schools, Tennessee’s second-largest school district, is home to more than 12,000 students who aren’t proficient in English, and about a third of the students learning English across the state.

Four schools have special programs for newcomer students who had interrupted schooling in their home countries. But for the most part, students like Edgardo go to their neighborhood schools and attend normal classes, with a class period of specific English instruction.

So McGraner, a charter-school leader, decided to start a more intensive program — and forged an unlikely set of alliances along the way in a city where the expansion of charter schools has sparked bitter debate.

Critics often have accused charters of avoiding parts of Nashville with lots of non-English speaking families. But McGraner made clear that she wanted to do the opposite, and would even take on needy students sent her way by the local district.

That won her crucial support. Then-Mayor Karl Dean earmarked more than $700,000 for a larger facility for STEM Prep, with room for the Nashville Newcomer Academy and language learning equipment. This spring, the district told middle school students with minimal English proficiency about the program, and officials said they hoped that it would serve as a citywide model.

McGraner even won over school board member Will Pinkston, who jokingly calls himself “Public Enemy No. 1” of the charter movement.

“STEM Prep has been one of the only charter schools that has been a true partner to the district,” Pinkston said. “Kristin McGraner has always opened her doors and given the opportunity for us to learn from each other.”

In August, STEM Prep welcomed 100 students to the Nashville Newcomer Academy, a one-year program for middle-schoolers new to the United States and to English, like Edgardo once was. (Edgardo himself is now a sophomore at the adjacent high school.)

“People do think I’m crazy,” McGraner said. “Do I anticipate we might have a dip in [test scores]? Yes. Do I think our kids are going to outperform peers, whether it’s in Nashville, Tennessee or some other city in the United States? Yes. I do.”

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McGraner’s confidence comes from experience.

Nashville Newcomer Academy is housed within STEM Prep, where nearly all of the school’s English language learners have achieved proficiency after one year, according to data provided by the school. But not all of them came from as far behind as the Newcomer students. Many had simply struggled in local schools since kindergarten.

Still, Newcomer wants to get its students to English proficiency in one year, while also helping them get closer to understanding grade-level work. That’s ambitious: Research has shown that students in that age group take longer, on average, to become proficient in English.

McGraner says the key is making sure students get effective teaching and benefit from teachers’ high expectations. Students also take elective classes and have lunch with students outside the Newcomer Academy.

“Our little people can master language pretty darn fast,” McGraner said.

Another key is funding. Newcomer’s classes and coursework are in English, as they are at any school in Nashville. But each class has two co-teachers, for a ratio of about one teacher to 13 students. That’s considerably lower than what the state offers funding for — one teacher for 25 English language students. (Metro Nashville Public Schools is currently suing the state specifically over funding for English learners.)

McGraner says she has the money for extra teachers because of creative budgeting — the school has a lean central office and doesn’t spend big on technology — as well as some philanthropic support. For the first time, STEM Prep is also receiving some federal funds meant for English learners.

Creative teaching matters, too. Ruben Vargas, a science and math teacher at Newcomer, says his colleagues look for different ways to convey information, so they aren’t just relying on English to help students master grade-level material.

Teachers work from a curriculum that includes teaching reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills in all subjects, and get extra help from Alice Nie, the program’s academic dean. Nie, like Vargas, was once an English learner herself.

In a recent coaching session, Nie helped Vargas think of ways to explain cube roots visually so students could show that they understood the concept even if they couldn’t express it.

“You realize you make a lot of assumptions as a teacher,” Vargas said. “Even providing a picture makes a huge difference on knowing if students know what a cube is or a square is.”

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McGraner and the Newcomer faculty won’t know if they’ve achieved their goal until the end of the school year. But students — many of whom have striking stories of being transplanted to Nashville from across the world — say the first few months have felt comfortable.

Jules, a fifth-grade student who moved to Nashville with his family from Congo this spring, is one. Before he moved, “There was no fridge, no electric, and at the school the teachers and the principal, they was not good,” he said. “If you were late at school, they beat you with a stick.”

“Here, I like it because they teach us new things,” he added.

For Edgardo’s part, he is proud to have inspired McGraner. He says he loves school now and is making his highest grades ever at STEM Prep’s high school. His lowest grade is in English, an 85. After high school, he wants to join the U.S. Army for the benefits and to protect his new country and family.

“Before I feel like nothing here, and now I feel like something, like I’m a person here, like I’m a student at STEM Prep,” he said. “I have a lot of friends and my teachers are my friends, too.”

Changing course

After pressure from school board members, University of Memphis middle school drops its academic requirement

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
University of Memphis' elementary, Campus School, is one of the highest achieving schools in the state.

Leaders of a popular elementary school known for its high academic performance are changing the entrance requirements at a proposed middle school in hopes of creating a more diverse student body.

After the Shelby County Schools board raised concerns that the University of Memphis’ plans would continue a pattern of student enrollment from its elementary school, Campus School, that is mostly white, university leaders said last week they would drop the academic requirement for the middle school.

Most Memphis students do not meet state standards for learning. Under the revised proposal, students would need satisfactory behavior records and fewer than 15 unexcused absences, tardies, or early dismissals.

In addition, the school is meant to be a learning lab for teachers earning their degrees. School leaders hope these teachers will eventually return to the Memphis school system to work with children who live in poverty. But currently, the student body doesn’t reflect the population school leaders want to serve.

“We need to make sure that new teachers are getting everything they need. That way you then can learn how to be successful in a diverse community,” board member Miska Clay Bibbs said.

White students made up two-thirds of the elementary school in 2017, the highest percentage in the district. Only 8 percent of the students lived in poverty — the lowest in the district. By comparison, more than half of students in Shelby County Schools live in poverty while only 8 percent are white.

The Memphis district has added more speciality schools in recent years to attract and retain high-achieving students, including white students, who might otherwise choose a private school or schools in the surrounding suburbs. Campus School is one that attracts a lot of white families.

It wasn’t always like that, board member Michelle Robinson McKissack said. She and other board members urged university leaders to do more intentional outreach to the surrounding neighborhood that would have priority in admissions.

“It’s surprising to me that it did seem to be more diverse when I was a child going to Campus in the mid-70s than today,” she said. “And I want to ensure that University Middle looks like Campus looked when I was going to school there.”

Until recently, Campus School was the only school with a contract in the district. Compared to charter schools, contract schools have more say in how they choose students. That allows the University of Memphis to give priority to children of faculty and staff.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
University Middle would be housed in the former St. Anne Catholic School near Highland Street and Spottswood Avenue.

Paul Little and his wife chose their house because of its proximity to Campus School. If the university’s middle school had been open, he would have enrolled his oldest daughter there. He considered other public options, but ultimately decided on an all-girls private school.

“For a long time, I was against private schools in general because if people with high academic achievers pull their kids out of public school, you’ve left a vacuum,” he said.

Little, a White Station High School graduate, disagrees with the assertion that Campus School is not diverse, citing several international students who are children of University of Memphis faculty.

At a recent school meeting, “when I looked out over the cafeteria, I saw a lot of diversity there… That’s never been a concern for me,” he said. He said he was encouraged by the university’s outreach plans “to make the school as diverse as possible.”

Board members are expected to discuss the contract with University of Memphis on Tuesday night, vote the following week, and then open online applications to the school Jan. 30. The school would open in August with sixth-graders with plans to add one grade each year after that.

voices of the vote

Meet Denver teachers who voted yes to a strike, no to a strike — and just aren’t sure

PHOTO: PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Skinner Middle School math teacher Peter English walks out of the Riverside Baptist Church with his son, Landon, left, and daughter Brooke strapped to his chest after voting on whether to go on strike ()

Throughout the day, the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church filled up as Denver teachers made their way into a meeting organized by their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  

Months of negotiations that failed to produce a deal between top leaders of Denver Public Schools and the union had given way to individual teachers facing a choice: To strike or not?

Along with reporting the news of the day — which you can read about here — Chalkbeat spent time visiting with teachers to get a sense of what was shaping their decision-making.

Most teachers we spoke with, both in depth and in passing, said they voted “yes” to strike. Union officials have said two-thirds of those who vote Saturday and in a second session Tuesday must sign off on a strike for it to proceed, and the prevailing wisdom among teachers we interviewed was that support is strong.

The decision, though, is far from black and white for many teachers, regardless of where they ultimately land.

Here are the stories of three teachers, all at different places:

Krista Skuce, Slavens K-8 school: Yes to strike

At the urging of teachers and parents, Slavens K-8 students turned out early on a few recent mornings to show support for their teachers. They wore red in solidarity and posed for pictures.

They also brought questions. “Why are you doing this?” was one.

Krista Skuce, a physical education teacher and 14-year Denver Public Schools employee, would tell students that she lives 40 minutes from the school because she can’t afford to live in Denver.

Krista Skuce

But there is more to her story. Her spouse, she said, is no longer able to work, beset by medical issues, unable to draw disability benefits, and in need of costly care including massage therapy, chiropractic appointments, neuromuscular therapies, and more.  

At the same time, Skuce said her pay “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” So she hustles, earning extra pay by driving across town to coach softball and basketball.

Skuce, like many teachers who stopped to talk about their votes on Saturday, believes the district can do more to boost teachers’ base pay — before bonuses and incentives.  

She said her salary has only increased $4,000 or $5,000 in the past 14 years, even though she has been teaching 27 years, has a master’s degree, and is National Board Certified.

Skuce said she knows that by voting to strike, she could very well end up taking money out of her own bank account. Striking teachers don’t get paychecks.

“I am hoping the district and the DCTA do the right thing and recognize the fact that there are some people here who are on the edge,” she said. “We are on the edge emotionally, financially. We know these are good people. And I think teachers are people who wake up every morning with forgiveness.

“You have to take a stand and say what you are for at some point in time in your life — and this is it,” she said. “I’m willing to do it, scary or not.”  

Jason Clymer, John F. Kennedy High School: No to strike

An English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, Jason Clymer stands with his fellow union members in the belief teachers aren’t paid enough. He finds fault with what is asked of teachers through LEAP, the district’s growth and performance system for teachers.

“Teachers at my school feel extremely micromanaged and can’t catch a breath,” he said.  

But in the end, after being one of the first teachers in the door Saturday and attending an information session, Clymer said he voted against the strike.

“Going on strike is very hard,” said Clymer, whose wife works in human resources for the district’s central office. “And I think the agreement DPS came to was close enough.”

Clymer questioned picking a fight now because of the limited scope of the negotiations. That would be the current agreement governing ProComp, the pay system that provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

He said he’d like to save some political leverage to focus on other issues covered by the district’s main contract with the union.

“It’s really unfortunate these things can’t all be negotiated together,” he said. “If the district came out and said, ‘We want to give you more money, not as much as you like, but we want to devote more to things like mental health services,’ I really think that would be a winning argument.”

In opposing a strike, Clymer said that he did not want to divide his fellow teachers

“Although I voted no, I believe in the union,” he said. “And if the union voted to strike, I will absolutely support the union.”

Paula Zendle, Denver Green School: Undecided about strike

Paula Zendle is dreading the moment that is appearing increasingly likely: standing before her students at the Denver Green School and explaining why she won’t be there to teach them.

“I tell them constantly, ‘Don’t miss school, don’t miss school. Don’t be absent, don’t be absent, don’t be absent,’” said Zendle, her eyes welling up with tears as she waited on a friend. “I have been fighting to avoid a strike. I hate this. It’s utterly and totally agonizing to me.”

Paula Zendle

Zendle said she left a career in the corporate world for the classroom and has been teaching eight years. She teaches English language acquisition and Spanish at the Green School, a popular and highly-rated middle school option in a district that celebrates choice.

 Zendle said she has done her research and written to the district’s chief financial officer. What bothers her is a system she believes rewards younger teachers and underpays teachers in terms of the cost of living.  

The average Denver teacher currently earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

District officials have agreed to put $20 million more into teacher compensation and defended their most recent offer on Saturday as “compelling.”

For Zendle, the prospect of facing her students — and that she works in a supportive school environment — is contributing to her struggle in deciding whether to vote “yes” to strike.

So if the moment does come, what will she tell her students?

“We have the right to protest unfair taxpayer spending,” she said. “This is not only unfair, it’s unconscionable. Their priorities have been wrong for 10 years.”

Then she paused and made clear that her decision had not been made. She considers herself a person of principle, and that will guide her in making a decision.