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?
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.”
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.”
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.”