Stance

‘Our resolve has never been stronger’: Nashville school board commits to diversity in post-Trump America

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.

Nashville education leaders have a message for the city’s diverse population of students and their families: All are welcome, regardless of citizenship or immigration status.

The board for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools on Friday released a statement pledging commitment to diversity in the wake of Donald Trump’s election as the nation’s next president.

“After an extremely divisive election season, we believe it is more important than ever to reiterate that this school board and this school system value diversity, and we believe students from different ethnic, religious, language, cultural and socio-economic backgrounds learn from, and inspire, each other,” reads the statement, based on a resolution and released by Chairwoman Anna Shepherd.

“We will remain focused, and we will redouble our commitments to diversity — from the classroom to the Central Office. Our resolve has never been stronger.”

With nearly 90,000 students, Metro Nashville is Tennessee’s second largest district and easily its most diverse. The school system has the state’s highest percentage of English language learners. About 30 percent can speak a language at home besides English, and about 1 percent are refugees who came to Nashville to seek safety, often from war-torn countries.

Nashville joins a growing chorus of districts nationwide that are planting their flags in the ground on the value of diversity in response to Trump’s anti-immigration platform.

However, Nashville’s resolution falls short of promising to protect the identities of students, family members and school staff — a pledge made earlier this week by the school board for Los Angeles Unified Schools.

During his campaign, Trump vowed to deport millions of immigrants, and school leaders are concerned about his administration’s access to data collected through the Obama administration for programs created to protect undocumented immigrants, including many students, from deportation.

In recent years, Nashville officials have touted the district’s growing diversity as one of its greatest assets.

Earlier this week, school counselors were briefed about how to support students experiencing heightened anxiety about being deported or bullied on the heels of the election. The district already offers legal services to its immigrant and refugee families, and partners with nonprofit organizations such as Conexión Américas for afterschool programming and other services for families new to the United States.

Here’s the school board’s statement in whole:

“Several of our friends in the Metro Council have invited the school board to join them in ensuring that Nashville remains a welcoming community. This week, the board articulated a new mission and vision statement, as well as core values and beliefs, for Metro Nashville Public Schools. After an extremely divisive election season, we believe it is more important than ever to reiterate that this school board and this school system value diversity, and we believe students from different ethnic, religious, language, cultural and socio-economic backgrounds learn from, and inspire, each other.

“In addition to the Council, Mayor Megan Barry has affirmed that she is committed to ensuring that Nashville is a warm and welcoming place for all of our citizens. So, too, are we committed to ensuring that all of our students and families feel welcome and safe at Metro Schools. As stewards of one of the most diverse school systems in America, my board colleagues and I proudly promote a caring environment for all of our 89,000 students, and we appreciate the steps that Dr. Shawn Joseph and his team are taking to discourage bullying and provide counseling to our kids in this uncertain time.

“The school board, and all 11,000 employees in Metro Schools, have one of the most important jobs in this city – educating our youth. We will remain focused, and we will redouble our commitments to diversity – from the classroom to the Central Office. Our resolve has never been stronger.”

BULLYING PREVENTION

Most Colorado school districts have updated their anti-bullying policies for LGBT students. Here’s why some have not.

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students from Aurora's Rangeview High School ate lunch during a break at a weekend gathering of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and straight youth. The annual event hosted by LGBT advocacy organization One Colorado focused on student leadership.

While many Colorado school districts have adopted explicit policies against bullying of gay and transgender students, some say singling out populations is not necessary to create a safe environment for marginalized students.

According to a report released Wednesday by One Colorado, the state’s largest gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender advocacy group, 82 percent of school districts statewide have revised their anti-bullying policies since 2011. That’s up from 37 percent in 2012, when the organization first examined school district policies.

The revisions followed the 2011 passage of a state law that prohibits bullying on the basis of a student’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. The bill also included a program that provided funding to help schools update their policies.

Colorado’s legislation was considered a landmark at the time. Meanwhile, protections for LGBT students are coming into new national focus after President Donald Trump rescinded guidance on how schools should accommodate the needs of transgender students.  

Daniel Ramos, One Colorado’s executive director, said the organization worked with many school districts after the bill passed in 2011 to develop the proper language for updating policies.

One Colorado has received some pushback, however, from districts that find redrafting their guidelines unnecessary, he said.

“Some schools don’t believe that they have LGBTQ youth or LGBTQ people in their school districts,” Ramos said. “Regardless of whether you have LGBTQ people or LGBTQ families… having bullying policies that reflect actual or perceived identity is important in that it protects all students.”

Three school districts in the Denver area — Westminster, Aurora and Adams 14 — are listed as still not having updated their anti-bullying policies to comply with the law. The report also notes that the Douglas County School District has not updated its policies yet, but is in the process of doing so.

Most of the other Colorado school districts that have not updated their policies are small and rural.

The Westminster school board earlier this year passed a resolution stating that the district does not tolerate bullying, harassment or discrimination, including discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation.

However, Ramos said the resolution doesn’t cut it. He said One Colorado was looking for an explicit anti-bullying policy.

Aurora includes language in its nondiscrimination policy that prohibits targeting students for a number of reasons, including sexual orientation — but does not enumerate that in its anti-bullying guidelines.

Ramos said it is important for districts to be explicit in prohibiting harassment based on specific aspects of a student’s identity in both the anti-bullying and nondiscrimination policies.

According to a report from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, policies that explicitly protect LGBT students are more effective than those that do not.

“Just a general anti-bullying policy, one that says bullying is prohibited but doesn’t list any of the characteristics, is as effective as having no policy at all,” Ramos said.

Adams 14 also has policies that do not specifically list protected identities, said Kim Cini, the district’s assistant director for student services.

She said Adams 14’s school board is considering updates to all district policies, but the general language in the anti-bullying and nondiscrimination guidelines is meant to encompass all Adams 14 students.

The Commerce City school district also has rolled out new curriculum this year, aimed at increasing instruction based around practicing empathy for students with different identities and backgrounds, she said.

“Bullying applies to all people, whether we’re explicitly identifying that population or not,” Cini said. “I think we’re going to get a lot further (with social-emotional learning) than talking about what a policy is.”

Ramos said updating policy can be especially impactful for students in predominately Latino districts such as Adams 14.

“I myself, as a gay Latino male, know that I don’t just show up in public as either gay or as Latino or as male — I show up as all those things and then some,” he said. “For students to feel like they can bring their whole selves to school and talk about the experiences that they have as people of color, as LGBTQ folks, as male or female, that’s what we want young people to feel safe enough to able to bring to the classroom.”

basics

After almost 10 years of changes to Indiana classrooms, ESSA’s headed your way. Here’s what you should know about the new federal law.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students in IPS School 91's multi-age first-, second- and third-grade classroom work on math activities.

This year, Indiana education officials are focused on shifting education policy to comply with the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which Congress passed in late 2015.

But given Indiana’s history, ESSA is likely to be just the latest in a long line of education policy changes.

What started with a new schools chief focused on shaking things up in 2008 turned into major legislative changes that gave Indiana its oft-cited charter school and voucher programs in 2011.

Around the same time, Common Core standards burst on the scene, highlighting Indiana once again as an early adopter and — just a few years later — as one of the first states to jump ship. Battles over replacing ISTEP ramped up in late 2015, followed in rapid succession by an election resulting in a new governor and an upset in the race for state superintendent.

Throw ESSA into the mix, and it’s safe to say the last decade of Indiana education policy has been tumultuous. What does this new law mean for Indiana? We answer some of those questions below.

Where did ESSA come from?

U.S. lawmakers passed the newest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in late 2015 to replace the controversial No Child Left Behind Act.

The goal, in part, was to remedy a number of complaints around NCLB. State and federal officials have talked up how ESSA is supposed to give states more autonomy and remove NCLB’s rigid performance goals.

Advocates hope ESSA will bring more attention to the country’s neediest children and those most likely to be overlooked — including English-learners and students with disabilities.

What does ESSA mean for testing?

As it turns out, not that much — most of Indiana’s testing changes come down from the state, not the feds.

Indiana’s ISTEP test would have fulfilled most of the federal requirements, but the state trashed ISTEP earlier this spring in favor of a new test (still in the works) that will be given for the first time in 2019 — “ILEARN.”

For elementary and middle school students, ILEARN will be “computer-adaptive,” and adjust difficulty based on students’ answers. In high school, students would be expected to pass end-of-course assessments in Algebra, ninth-grade biology, 10th-grade English and 12th-grade U.S. Government.

The state’s plan also includes a chance to pursue giving state tests in other languages. So far, Spanish would be the focus.

How does this affect A-F grades?

Congress passing the Every Student Succeeds Act collided almost directly with Indiana’s overhauled A-F grade model, used for the first time in 2016.

Although the new model checks many boxes when it comes to new ESSA requirements, there’s still work that needs to be done.

Indiana’s new A-F model replaces one that centered primarily around ISTEP test scores. A-F grades still factor in test scores higher than other measures, but they no longer reflect just test passing rates. How students improve on tests from year to year is also included and weighted equally with passing rates.

Beginning this school year, A-F grades will include these measures (see weights here):

  • Academic achievement in the form of state test scores.
  • Test score improvement.
  • Graduation rate and a measure of “college and career readiness” for high schools.
  • Academic progress of English-language learners, measured by the WIDA test.
  • At least one aspect of school quality. For now, that will be chronic absenteeism, but the state hopes to pursue student and teacher surveys.

The last two are new to Indiana, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

What about low-performing schools?

So the timeline doesn’t change — public schools can still only get four Fs in a row before the state steps in. But once they do, that’s where the process differs starting in 2018-19.

Going forward, two new categories will replace priority schools and focus schools. Two new ones will be introduced: “targeted support” and “comprehensive support.”

At schools receiving targeted support, certain groups of students — ethnic groups, English learners, low-income students or students with disabilities — would score in the bottom 5 percent of state test-takers for at least two years in a row.

Comprehensive support is similar to what are now priority schools — those that fall in the bottom 5 percent of passing state tests; any school that receives an F grade; or any high school where the four-year graduation rate is lower than 67 percent.

If a school gets a C grade or better for two years in a row, it is no longer categorized as needing comprehensive support. Schools in targeted support have five years to earn two consecutive C grades.

Doesn’t the graduation rate change, too?

Unfortunately, yes.

As early as fall of 2018, the general diploma could cease to count in the graduation rate the state is now required to report to the federal government.

The federal calculation will likely cause rates to drop and school A-F grades to take a hit because general diploma students students would no longer be considered graduates to the feds.

Students can still earn a general diploma — it just can’t factor into state accountability grades. ESSA requires states to count graduates that earn the diploma that a majority of students get or one that is more rigorous, but not one that is less.

What happens next?

There are still some major questions lingering over how the new A-F grade components will play out next year, particularly when it comes to dual credit classes and changes to graduation rate.

Those issues won’t get solved right away, if only because the Indiana State Board of Education must officially approve any A-F grade system changes, which won’t happen until after the ESSA draft plan is completed.

The plan must be submitted to federal education officials in September. First it gets a review from the governor, who can choose to endorse it or not — no formal approval is required.

Read more of Indiana’s ESSA coverage here.