Open doors

As Trump seeks to keep some immigrants and refugees out, Nashville’s school community declares all are welcome

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
A bulletin board at Tusculum Elementary School tracks nationalities represented at the Nashville public school.

Two days before President Donald Trump signed an executive order targeting Muslim immigrants and refugees, Nashville schools Director Shawn Joseph visited one of the city’s Islamic centers. There, Muslim parents explained how their children pray five times a day as part of their faith, including once during the school day.

Joseph assured them that their children could pray at schools in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

“We want to make sure that kids have a safe place to practice religion in our schools,” Joseph said. “You don’t have to check your culture at the door. … It enriches everyone’s experiences.”

Trump’s order last Friday, which severely restricts immigration from seven Muslim countries, puts educators — from superintendents to teachers — in uncertain terrain. The travel restrictions, as well as the wall Trump hopes to erect along the U.S.-Mexican border, ultimately could separate immigrant and refugee students from their families.

However, Joseph says the new president’s policies do nothing to alter the message of Tennessee’s second largest district to its students and their families: Immigrant and refugee students are welcome.

“What I know is all children have hopes and dreams, and we as a school system have to help them achieve those hopes and dreams,” Joseph told Chalkbeat in an interview last week. “Whether you are an immigrant student or native-born, Nashville is a place where there are opportunities for you.”

Since the 1990s, Nashville’s school system has welcomed more immigrants and refugees than any other Tennessee district. Its classrooms not only provide an education to those students but serve as a gateway to connect families with social services.

The capital city is home to the nation’s largest Kurdish population, most of whom came from northern Iraq, as well as sizeable populations of immigrants and refugees from other parts of the Middle East, Africa, and Central and South America.

The diversity of cultures and first languages in classrooms is a source of pride for the Nashville district. It also provides natural opportunities for students who are U.S. natives to learn about other nations and cultures.

“It’s a two-way learning street,” said education blogger T.C. Webber, whose two children attend Tusculum Elementary School. “It’s important for (my children) to learn how other people live and to learn that everyone’s life isn’t like theirs.  And it’s important for those kids to be around my children. They learn about America and all of the great things that are possible here.”

Following Trump’s election in November, Nashville’s school board passed a resolution affirming the district’s commitment to diversity. The board also praised Joseph for his efforts to discourage bullying and to direct students to counselors in an “uncertain time.”  Then this month, Joseph joined at least 15 superintendents of urban districts and 1,500 education leaders nationwide in signing a petition that asks for protection of so-called “Dreamers,” or students brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

PHOTO: MNPS
Shawn Joseph

“President Trump’s executive orders on immigrants and refugees have had a real effect on the MNPS community,” Joseph said in a statement this week. “The President’s actions have understandably caused a tremendous amount of concern for our foreign-born families and staff, as well as the broader community who care about our fellow human beings.”

Teachers and administrators at Tusculum Elementary, which enrolls new immigrant and refugee students each month, have doubled down on their resolve to make the school a safe space for all.

“We have several families represented from every nation on (the travel ban) list, and we have never had a problem with any of them,” said Principal Alison McMahon. “On the contrary, they’re quite delightful.”

In a new effort to make students feel welcome, Tusculum teachers have started meeting weekly to learn more about the cultures of their students’ native countries.

“It empowers the teachers to know more about why these refugees are coming here, why they’re making those drastic changes in their lives,” McMahon said. “It helps us have compassion.”

The diversity is a draw for parents like the Webers and their children Avery, 7, and Peter, 6. That why the family decided to participate in a rally last weekend in Nashville to speak out against Trump’s executive orders.

“(Our children) don’t understand why someone wants to build a wall,” Weber explained, “why someone wouldn’t want the people they eat lunch with to be here.”

Decision makers

5 things to know about Austan Goolsbee, the high-powered new addition to Chicago’s school board

PHOTO: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
In 2013, Austan Goolsbee testified before the Congressional Joint Economic Committee on Capitol Hill about the nation's economic recovery

Chicago’s school board is once again complete after outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel chose a University of Chicago economist to fill a long-vacant seat.

Austan Goolsbee, an economics professor at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, will round out the seven-member, mayor-appointed board that sets education policy in the city.

Here are five things to know about Goolsbee:

  1. Like Emanuel, he served in the Obama White House. Goolsbee was as a close adviser to President Barack Obama, eventually becoming chair of his Council of Economic Advisors. The Chicago Teachers Union see this tie as a liability. “Mr. Goolsbee comes into a board responsible for students and their schools being starved of resources for the last eight years by the man who appointed him,” the union said in a statement. “Those same neighborhoods continue to struggle from the consequences of a foreclosure crisis that the administration he served in Washington failed to address.”
  2. He has weighed in on education before. A prolific opinion writer, he has written favorably about the economic arguments for universal prekindergarten, a priority for the outgoing mayor, saying that expanding early childhood education is a bargain over the long term. In a 2015 survey of economists’ positions on public issues, Goolsbee expressed optimism about “value-added” measures that try to isolate the impact of individual teachers on student test scores — though he qualified the approach as having “lots of noise and unobservables.” Expressing uncertainty about vouchers, Goolsbee said he fears that letting parents use public funds to pay for private school tuition could harm public schools, which have fixed costs cannot easily be reduced when students leave them. (A tax-credit version of vouchers launched in Illinois last year but now faces an uncertain future under a new Democratic governor.)
  3. He’ll bring a focus on fiscal policy to a board that oversees a big and uncertain budget. A close economic adviser to President Obama and prolific commenter on matters of economic policy in the national media, he’s joining a board that oversees $8 billion in outstanding debt. Chicago has credited the passage of an equitable funding bill, in 2017, for helping stabilize its finances. But the district’s economic future is uncertain, especially as families continue to leave the city.
  4. His personal public school experience is limited. He attended an elite private high school in the suburbs of Boston where he grew up, and his children attended the University of Chicago’s Lab School both before and after the family’s time in Washington, D.C., he has said in interviews.
  5. He’s got a following, and a sense of humor. For proof, check out his Twitter feed, which has 80,000 followers, and his October appearance on the popular NPR quiz show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” Plus, his official University of Chicago profile lists a special interest in improv comedy. That sets him apart from the rest of the school board members, who tend to keep a low public profile.  

How long Goolsbee serves could depend on what happens after Emanuel leaves office in early 2019. Chicago’s mayor has controlled the city school board since 1995, but Emanuel’s decision not to seek a third term has heightened debate about whether the city’s schools have benefitted.

In 2011 and 2015, voters backed non-binding resolutions that would make the board democratically elected. Now, two of the leading candidates in the mayor’s race, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and state comptroller Susana Mendoza, have said they’d support an elected school board — reducing their own power over education if they become mayor.

How soon a change could happen is unclear, but state lawmakers who would have to sign off on such a change have an ally in Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker, who has said he supports the call for an elected school board.

The issue was a point of debate at a Chalkbeat Chicago event this week at Malcolm X College. At the event, titled “Education for All? Chicago’s Next Mayor and the Future of Public Schools,” some panelists voiced concern that elections would be dominated by well-organized factions, such as the teachers union, that would have the ability to outspend other candidates.

Super Search

The pressing question at Denver’s final forum: How will Susana Cordova tackle inequity?

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Susana Cordova poses for a portrait in December 2018.

The challenges that Susana Cordova will face if she’s hired next week as superintendent of the Denver school district were laid bare at a public forum Tuesday night.

Standing in a high school cafeteria with a microphone in her hand, the deputy superintendent and sole finalist for the top job faced tough questions about why struggling schools have high numbers of inexperienced teachers, whether she would commit to removing all police officers from schools, and what she would do about what one student called the “charter-ization” of Denver Public Schools — that is, the district’s practice of replacing low-performing district-run schools, sometimes with charter schools.

The most heated and emotional exchanges, however, were about inequities: Why is the district not serving black, Latino, and Native American students as well as white students? Why do test score gaps exist between students from poor families and those from wealthier ones?

Onecia Garcia, a senior at East High School, the city’s largest school and one of its most diverse, told Cordova there is a noticeable gap at East between the kids whose parents have money to pay for tutors and SAT prep courses, and the kids whose parents don’t.

“I want to know what your plan is to get that gap in order,” Garcia said.

In response to Garcia’s question and others like it, Cordova acknowledged that institutional racism exists in Denver Public Schools and has contributed to those gaps. She said the district needs to do a better job informing families about opportunities such as free SAT help and concurrent enrollment classes that allow students to earn college credit while in high school.

Cordova, who grew up in Denver and climbed the district ranks from teacher to her current position of deputy superintendent, talked about making it mandatory for all teachers to undergo training on bias and being culturally responsive, instead of allowing some to opt out.

Cordova said one of her top priorities would be to take the myriad and disparate efforts the district has started over the years to address specific inequities and combine them into one comprehensive plan. She called it “an equity plan that is for all kids, but that also has the specifics for African-American kids, for Latino kids, for low-income kids.”

“It is important that we’re not introducing too many things that you can’t keep a focus,” she said. “I think that’s a valid criticism of the work that we’ve done: We’ve introduced too many things that have made it hard to understand what is the progress that we’re trying to get at.”

But after the forum, Garcia said she didn’t feel Cordova had fully answered the questions. Other students who attended said they felt the same way.

“She wasn’t willing to commit to anything,” said Jonathan Bateman, a freshman at George Washington High School, where the forum was held.

“She answered questions like a politician,” said Carlye Raabe, also a freshman at George Washington.

Cordova emphasized that if she’s hired as superintendent, she’ll approach the job differently than her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, who stepped down in October after nearly 10 years of leading Denver Public Schools. Boasberg was often criticized for not listening to the community.

“I believe deeply in the power of relationships,” Cordova said. “I think it’s really important that we’re not just listening to people who think like I think or who sound like I sound, but who have different experiences, because Denver is an incredibly diverse place.”

The school board is expected to vote Monday on whether to appoint Cordova to the top job.