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.
“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.”