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.”

grant money

Denver charter Compass Academy wins $2.5 million to “reimagine high school”

PHOTO: Courtesy Compass Academy

A Denver charter middle school devoted to bilingualism and founded with help from City Year, an AmeriCorps program that deploys young adults to mentor and tutor at-risk students, has won a $2.5 million grant to help design and launch an innovative high school model.

The money is from the XQ Institute’s Super School Project, an initiative backed by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple’s Steve Jobs. XQ aims to “reimagine high school” by funding novel ideas. Last year, it gave $10 million each to 10 schools across the country.

Compass Academy in southwest Denver applied for one of those big grants. It didn’t win, but XQ gave the school a second look as part of an effort to bring more diversity in geography and school type to its “super schools,” said Monica Martinez, senior school support strategist for the California-based XQ. Compass will receive $2.5 million over the next five years.

“Their idea stood out to us,” Martinez said.

That idea is to pair personalized, community-based learning — dance classes at local studios, science classes at local hospitals — with the type of social and emotional support City Year corps members provide, such as checking in with kids who were absent the day before.

“There’s joy and love in this building,” said executive director Marcia Fulton. Compass students, she said, “feel that somebody understands, and they feel worth.”

Compass also aims to have every student graduate with a seal of biliteracy, a new credential that proves to colleges and employers they can communicate in at least two languages. That goal, Fulton said, was born of a desire expressed by families in the community.

The school opened in 2015 with just sixth grade. When classes begin again next week, Compass will be a full middle school with more than 300 students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades. Last year, 98 percent of students were students of color, 96 percent were eligible for subsidized lunch and 64 percent were English language learners.

Academically, Compass has struggled. Its first year, 14 percent of sixth-graders met or exceeded expectations on state math tests and just 8 percent met that bar in English. The school’s academic growth scores, which measure how much students learned in a year compared to their academic peers, also lagged behind school district averages.

XQ didn’t take the school’s test scores into account, Martinez said. The XQ grants, she said, “are based on a vision and an idea, and Compass was the same way.”

Fulton said the school “did not land where we wanted to land” on the state tests. But she said Compass has made shifts in its scheduling, staffing and approach that she hopes will drive higher academic achievement going forward. The school is currently rated “red,” the lowest category in Denver Public Schools’ color-coded school rating system.

“When you’re lifting up so many powerful components of design, it takes time,” Fulton said. “The funding is about an acknowledgement of the path we’re on. … We are being supported to say, ‘Keep doing what we know is important for all learners in the community.’”

Compass’s charter is for sixth through 12th grade. But Compass does not yet have a building for its high school. The Denver school board voted in 2015 to place Compass’s middle school in underutilized space on the Lincoln High School campus, a controversial decision that drew intense pushback from some Lincoln students, parents and teachers.

Compass has not asked DPS for space for its high school. In fact, Fulton said, the Compass board of directors has not yet decided when the high school will open. She said the board is “committed to identifying and investing in a private facility.”

Earlier this week, 13-year-old student Davonte Ford was at Compass, helping teachers set up their classrooms before the start of school. The rising eighth-grader came to Compass last year from a school where he said he “used to get in a lot of physical altercations.”

“I used to get frustrated sometimes,” he said. “If I got frustrated, I had no one to talk to.”

But at Compass, Ford said, it’s different.

“At this school,” he said, “I have someone to help me.”

Tough talk

State ed officials rip into ‘insulting’ SUNY charter proposal and ‘outrageous’ Success Academy chair

PHOTO: Monica Disare
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa

The state’s top two education officials did not pull punches at a panel Wednesday that touched on everything from last weekend’s racist violence in Charlottesville to recent charter school debates.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia took an uncharacteristically combative position against SUNY’s proposal to let some charter schools certify their own teachers — arguing it would denigrate the teaching profession and is not in the best interest of children.

“I could go into a fast food restaurant and get more training than that,” Elia said about the proposal, which would require 30 hours of classroom instruction for prospective teachers. “Think about what you would do. Would you put your children there?”

Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa denounced Success Academy’s board chair, Daniel Loeb, whose racially inflammatory comment about state Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins drew headlines, and pointedly referred to New York City officials’ reluctance to talk about school segregation.

Wednesday’s conversation was sprawling, but its discussion of race and education had a particular urgency against the national backdrop of Charlottesville — and the president’s reluctance to denounce neo-Nazis and white supremacists in its aftermath.

The following are some of the most charged moments of the panel, held at the Museum of Jewish Heritage and hosted by City & State:

Segregation — “you’ve got to name it”

In response to a question about New York City’s diversity plan, which was widely criticized for not using the word “segregation,” Rosa suggested the city should have gone further.

“We committed to, as a department and as a Board of Regents, [the] notion of naming it,” Rosa said, referring to the state’s draft integration statement, which referred to New York schools as the most segregated in the country. “You’ve got to name it.”

Elia chimed in too, tying integration to the recent events in Charlottesville.

“I would say the last six days have pointed out to all of us that, clearly, this is something that must be on the agenda,” Elia said.

Dan Loeb — “absolutely outrageous”

Loeb ignited a firestorm over the past week with a Facebook post that said people like Stewart-Cousins, an African-American New York State Senator he called loyal to unions, have caused “more damage to people of color than anyone who has ever donned a hood” — an apparent reference to the Ku Klux Klan. (He has since taken down the post and apologized.)

Rosa strongly condemned the comments in the same breath as she denounced the violence in Charlottesville, and said children of color at Success Academy would be “better served” without Loeb leading the board.

“I am outraged on every single level,” she said. “Comparing the level of commitment of an African-American woman that has given her time and her commitment and dedication, to compare her to the KKK. That is so absolutely outrageous.”

Elia seemed to pick up on another part of Loeb’s statement, which referred to “union thugs and bosses.”

“For anyone to think that we can be called thugs,” Elia said. “People [do] not realize the importance of having a quality teacher in front of every child.”

SUNY proposal — “insulting”

SUNY Charter Schools Institute released a proposal in July that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers. The certification would require at least 30 hours of classroom instruction and 100 hours of teaching experience under the supervision of an experienced teacher.

But as the requirements currently stand, both Elia — who compared the training to that of fast food workers — and Rosa took aim.

“No other profession, not the lawyers who are sitting in that SUNY Institute, would accept that in their own field. So if you don’t accept it for your very own child, and you don’t accept it for your very own profession, then you know what? Don’t compromise my profession. I think it’s insulting,” Rosa said.

Joseph Belluck, the head of SUNY’s charter school committee, said earlier this month that the committee is considering revising those requirements before the draft comes to the board for a vote. But he fired back after Rosa and Elia bashed the proposal on Wednesday.

“Commissioner Elia and Chancellor Rosa are proponents of the status quo,” Belluck said in an emailed statement. They have “no substantive comments on our proposal — just slinging arrows. Today, they even denigrated the thousands of fast food workers who they evidently hold in low esteem.”