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.”

Changes

Denver East High principal Andy Mendelsberg out after investigation into cheerleading scandal

PHOTO: John Leyba / The Denver Post
Denver's East High School.

The principal of Denver’s East High School has retired after an investigation into how school district officials handled complaints about the actions of the school’s cheerleading coach found principal Andy Mendelsberg “did not take the necessary steps to ensure that the physical and emotional health and safety of the students on the cheer team was fully protected,” according to a letter from Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

Former East principal John Youngquist will return to Denver to lead the school, Boasberg announced Friday. Youngquist served for the past four years as a top official in Aurora Public Schools.

East is the most-requested high school in Denver Public Schools. The 2,500-student school is known for its comprehensive academic program, as well as its breadth of sports and extracurricular activities.

Mendelsberg had been on leave since August, when 9News first aired videos that showed East cheerleaders being forced into the splits position while teammates held their arms and legs and former coach Ozell Williams pushed them down.

The parents of at least one cheerleader who was injured by the practice emailed a video to the East High athletic director in mid-June asking “what the administration is going to do about my daughter’s injury and how it happened,” according to emails provided to 9News.

After the 9News story broke two months later, Williams was fired.

Mendelsberg’s exit coincides with the conclusion of an independent investigation by an outside law firm commissioned by DPS. The district on Friday released a report detailing the firm’s findings.

According to Boasberg’s letter, the investigation found that “over multiple months, in response to multiple concerns of a serious nature,” Mendelsberg and East athletic director Lisa Porter failed to keep the students on the cheer team safe.

Specifically, the letter says Mendelsberg and Porter did not “sufficiently address, share or report allegations of abuse and the contents of the videos;” failed to provide the necessary level of oversight for the cheer coach, “especially as concerns mounted;” and failed to take corrective action, including firing Williams.

At a press conference Friday afternoon, Boasberg said that in addition to what was captured on video, concerns about Williams included that he instructed athletes not to tell anyone what happened at practice and required them to friend him on social media “with the express purpose of him monitoring their social media presence.”

Boasberg said that “raises deeper concerns about what was going on here.”

Mendelsberg, Porter, assistant cheer coach Mariah Cladis and district deputy general counsel Michael Hickman were put on leave while the investigation was ongoing. The Denver police also launched an investigation.

Porter resigned her position earlier this week, Boasberg said.

Hickman received corrective action but is being reinstated after the investigation revealed he didn’t know the full extent of what happened, Boasberg said.

Cladis, who was not at practice during the splits incident and whose position was volunteer, is welcome to remain the assistant cheer coach, he said.

Mendelsberg had been principal since 2011. But he’d worked at East much longer as a teacher, softball coach, dean of students, athletic director and assistant principal, according to a story in the Spotlight alumni newsletter published in 2012.

Youngquist preceded Mendelsberg, having served as principal of East from 2007 to 2011. He left the school to take a districtwide position leading the recruitment and development of DPS principals. In 2013, Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn hired him to be that district’s chief academic officer, a job he’s held until now.

Regarding his decision to return to East, Youngquist said, “My heart has drawn me toward supporting this learning community now and well into the future.”

As a parent and school leader, he said he understands the trust that parents put in schools. “I’m committed to strengthening that bond and partnership with our young people, our parents and with our great East staff,” he said.

Munn has already appointed an interim chief academic officer: Andre Wright, who currently serves as a P-20 learning community director. In a statement Friday, Munn said he “will evaluate the role and expectations of the (chief academic officer) position prior to developing a profile for that position moving forward.”

“We thank John Youngquist for his four years of service … and wish him all the best in his next chapter,” Munn said.

Chalkbeat reporter Yesenia Robles contributed information to this report.

showdown

McQueen’s deadline looms for Memphis and Nashville to share student info with charter schools — and no one is budging

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A request for student contact information from Green Dot Public Schools to help with enrollment efforts sparked a fight between the state and Shelby County Schools.

As Tennessee’s two largest school districts fought an order to share student information with charter schools, the state education commissioner set a deadline last week.

Candice McQueen told the superintendents of Shelby County Schools and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools they had to provide the data to charter schools that asked for it by Sept. 25 — or the state would “be forced to consider actions to enforce the law.”

But with just three days until the deadline, neither district has said it will budge. The consequences “will be determined Monday,” McQueen told Chalkbeat on Friday.

McQueen has not offered more information about what those consequences could be, though some lawmakers have worried it could mean funding cuts. There is some precedent for such a move: The Nashville district lost $3.4 million in state funding in 2012 when it refused to approve a controversial charter school, according to The Tennessean.

The clash comes after the Nashville and Memphis districts refused to turn over student contact information to charter networks, who argue that information is vital to their operation. Many Memphis schools, including those in the state-run school district, have been struggling with under-enrollment.

An amendment to an untested U.S. Department of Education rule suggests local districts can withhold information like phone numbers, addresses and email addresses — but a new state law requires Tennessee districts to hand it over to charter schools within 30 days.

The state department of education asked the attorney general’s office to weigh in. Last week, the attorney general said the districts had to turn the information over, but also that districts could take a “reasonable period of time” to notify parents about their right to opt out.

Shelby County Schools posted opt-out forms for parents on its website the next day, and gave parents until Oct. 22 to fill them out. The form allows parents to keep their information from charter schools specifically or from outside entities more broadly, including companies like yearbook providers, for example.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

The school boards for the two districts have been in lockstep in defying the state’s order, with the Memphis board even offering to write a legal opinion if Nashville were to go to court over the issue.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said his legal team is still reviewing the attorney general’s opinion.

“We still want to make sure parents know what their options are,” Hopson told Chalkbeat on Tuesday. “When we [McQueen and I] talked, she understood that our opt-out forms were out there.”

Anna Shepherd, board chair for the Nashville district, said the board met with its attorney this week to discuss the issue but took no action.

“We have not had any further conversation with the state concerning the release of data for MNPS students,” Shepherd said by email. “I’m not anticipating any action [before Monday].”

Reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.