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.”

How I Lead

Meditation and Mindfulness: How a Harlem principal solves conflict in her community

Dawn DeCosta, the principal of Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Dawn DeCosta, Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School’s principal of seven years, never pictured herself leading a school. Originally a fine arts major and art teacher, she was inspired to be a community leader when she took a summer leadership course at Columbia University’s Teacher College. The program helped her widen her impact to outside the classroom by teaching her how to find personal self awareness and mindfulness. For the past four years she has taught the students, teachers, and parents in her school’s community how to solve conflict constructively through the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence’s RULER program — a social-emotional learning program that brings together many of the tools that she learned at Columbia. While describing these new practices and techniques, DeCosta reflected on the specific impact they have had on her community.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What is the Yale RULER program?

It’s more of a process, not a script or curriculum. An approach that has these four anchors: the mood meter, the charter, the meta-moment, and the blueprint. We use the mood meter to describe feelings, because a lot of times we’ll just hear “I feel happy” or “I feel sad.” You want them to be able to better pinpoint how they feel, and the mood meter is a square with these quadrants that are different colors and show how much energy a student has at a given moment and how pleasant they’re feeling. The charter is an agreement to the class. It replaces “don’t hit, don’t kick” with “how do we want to feel, what are we going to do to feel that way, what will we do if we have a conflict.” The meta-moment are six steps on how to deal with a stressful situation, and the blueprint is a plan to serve a longer-term conflict between two people- to solve an ongoing conflict that we need a plan for, that’s not just in the moment. We integrate all four components throughout the day, throughout the week, throughout the year.

What changes did you make to it to make it work for your community, and what are the specific strategies you use?

We do it with teachers, students, staff, and supplement it with a culturally relevant approach. We have 100 percent black and brown children, so this means using culturally relevant texts, since we want students learning about leaders and artists who look like them. We want them to see models of excellence in themselves and see success too in themselves in order to combat some of the negative images they see in the media or even in their neighborhoods. This is a beautiful place but there’s also a lot going on in terms of poverty and violence, which have an impact on their lives, how they feel, how they live, how they see things. We’ve incorporated meditation, mindfulness, brain breaks, yoga, and arts into our curriculum. We’ve put all the different pieces together to tap into what makes kids want to go to school and makes them love to be here. We want to use these in every grade, so that we give students a common language and kids can move from one grade to the next easily. Student ownership is a big piece, because what happens when the teachers aren’t there? Do you know how to use this in less structured environments, at home with your siblings at home?

How do you make sure vulnerable students are getting emotional support and give time for that reflection and self growth but also provide a rigorous education that meets your school’s standards?

The work that we are doing is ensuring that the kids have academic improvement and success. Because they feel cared for and comfortable, ultimately students feel successful, and when you feel successful you will apply yourself more. Right now, learning is rigorous. It’s not what it was 10 years ago. So we ask kids to think very deeply to be critical thinkers. The text that they have to read is more rigorous, ones that require problem solving (and) for kids to think for themselves. And so that by itself is taxing. And that kind of work can be really stressful. A lot of the work we’ve done is around test anxiety. We want kids to know that this is just a piece of information, you need to know where you’re doing well, where you’re struggling so that they can address areas of challenge with a little more positivity. But we see the effects of it in our academic performance.

How have you measured the success of the program?

When I first became principal it wasn’t like we were having emergencies necessarily, but we were putting out a lot of fires. Kids were just coming in with issues, getting into fights, things like that. We also wanted to bring in more of the parents, because there were some that we wanted to be more engaged. We have seen an increase in test scores, but I use personal growth stories as my data–that’s how I know that this works. When I have those success stories, when I see students that really needed it, use it and feel a change, that is the data. We didn’t actually see real, big changes until last year, when we were three years into using this new style of learning. There’s always work to be done, it’s an ongoing thing.

In your own words, what is emotional intelligence and why is it important to have?

To me, it means that you are aware of what you may be feeling at a certain moment and of how your feelings impact interactions with others. It’s about how self aware you are, how are you thinking about what you’re going to say or do before you do it, and about how you show compassion for others who are also thinking and feeling just like you. It’s about how you listen to others, how you see and recognize what others are giving you, and how you support others. We’ve been told that all we can do is control ourselves, and that we’re not responsible for other people. But I think through emotional intelligence, we are responsible for how we make people feel.

In what ways do you help take this learning outside of the classroom?

We send home activities for students to do with their families, for over vacation. It will be like, “check in with your family members on their moods for the week and on how everybody is feeling this week,” or “what was one time when you and your parents had a conflict and what did you do well or not do well.” We keep finding the means to engage the parents at home with it by having them come in and do stress relief workshops. I have students ask, “Can I have a mood meter for my mom? I think it will help her because she feels really stressed.” So that home/school piece is a really important part of what makes everything successful. We’re all supporting the kids, we’re raising them together.

In what other ways, do you help the parents learn as well, and what does that look like?

We trained a group of parent leaders in RULER, who helped us train other parents. Parents like hearing from other parents, so we wanted to make sure that it was presented to them as something they could relate to. I think that sometimes as educators we are guilty of using a lot of acronyms and indigestible words when we’re talking to families, and what we’ve decided to do is breaking it down to talking about how do they deal with stress. Kind of how we brought it to the parents is that we brought to the kids strategies on how to deal with stress. We did some yoga with them, breathing techniques, and then we just started talking to them about what kinds of emotion they go through in a day. They talk about getting kids ready, making trains, dealing with family members, and really getting out what they were dealing with as parents–all that stuff that nobody really asked them about before. Honestly, they were the most receptive group. I think talking to each other, in a place where we’re all supporting each other, creates that space that we need.

Describe a specific instance or an anecdote that you think is reflective of the changes that have happened since you have implemented these new practices. How did you see the impact?

A boy came to us in the second grade, and he had been on a safety transfer, which means that he had been in a situation that may not be safe for a child. They’re either in violent conflict with others, or they’re being bullied, or something’s happening where they need to be removed from where they are. At first we had a lot of emotional difficulties and poor relationships with his teachers, and even though he was only six or seven he had been suspended several times. His family had also shut down from the school connection because since they were constantly hearing negative information. The principal basically said “Look, there’s nothing you can do with him. It’s just too much, he’s violent, he bites, it’s just too much.” But he came to the school, and just through engaging him through some of the new practices he was able to self regulate. It impacted his focus and changed his ability to relate to others. The changes didn’t make him perfect or change who he is, but it gave him some tools to be successful and work with others. Once he had love and compassion and felt accepted in our community, all of those behaviors just disappeared. His family became more supportive and trusting and he graduated last year.

Regents retreat

Regents use annual retreat to take stock of changes in testing, charter schools and more

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York State’s top education policymakers took a whirlwind tour Monday of their own accomplishments this year, kicking off a two-day retreat full of presentations and updates.

The briefings, conducted by top education department officials, served as a distillation of some top policy goals among the Board of Regents: rolling back graduation requirements, creating new graduation pathways, cutting back on state testing, and even rethinking how the board evaluates the charter schools it oversees.

Monday’s discussions largely tread on familiar territory, but here are three of the key issues they discussed.

Testing

New York State continues to be a hotbed of controversy surrounding testing, with roughly one in five students opting out of the 3-8 math and reading exams in recent years (the number is far smaller in New York City).

In response to concerns about the length of the exams, the Regents reduced the number of testing days for each exam from three to two — a change that went into effect this year. Education officials touted those changes Monday while stressing that they have gone out of their way to involve educators in the process of crafting exam questions.

“One of the things I believe is a major adjustment in New York is the extent to which teachers across New York are involved,” state education MaryEllen Elia told the board, noting that 75 percent of the test questions are released to the public. “We have to constantly be asking ourselves what can we do better.”

Still, some Regents continued to express concerns about the exams, including whether they are fair to English learners, and whether the tests themselves help perpetuate disparities.

“What research is used about what’s developmentally appropriate?” Regent Judith Johnson asked. “Is it possible to have a test question that is culturally neutral?”

Charter schools

The Regents are currently discussing changes to the way they evaluate the charter schools they oversee, including taking a deeper look at suspension rates compared to traditional district schools, and tracking why students leave.

“There are charter chains that might have 25 percent of the students when they first started and they’re claiming great growth,” Regent Kathleen Cashin said during Monday’s discussion, adding that questions about why students leave shouldn’t be “buried.”

The discussion highlights a tension in the board’s discussion of the publicly funded, privately managed schools. On the one hand, board members are often quite critical — worrying some within the charter sector. But on the other hand, they have still approved large batches of new charters, including at their most recent meeting.

And the debate will continue in the fall: The Regents are expected to consider a proposal for changing the way charter schools are evaluated at their September meeting.

Students with disabilities

The board also heard from state officials about efforts to improve access to programs for students with disabilities, including those in preschool.

As Chalkbeat has previously reported, there is a shortage of seats for preschool special education students — with students often languishing at home without education services, a problem that advocates say has only gotten worse. Part of the issue, officials say, is they don’t have a way of quickly tracking supply and demand for those programs, which are often provided by private organizations.

Instead, state officials rely on phone calls and informal surveys, which can make it difficult for officials to quickly respond to shortages. Now, state officials are in the process of implementing a new data system for tracking students and open seats.

“We need to move from our current reactive system,” Christopher Suriano, an assistant commissioner of special education told the board. “We have to start reacting proactively to make sure we have capacity.”

Grab bag

  • The Regents spent some time talking about how to measure “civic readiness” which will be a component of how schools are judged under the state’s ESSA plan.
  • New data released by state officials shows that at least 500 students with disabilities graduated this year as part of a new policy that lets superintendents review their performance in lieu of passing all of the Regents exams. Though officials cautioned that the data are preliminary, and the number is likely to increase, that’s up from 315 students during the previous year.